Grace, Glamour, and Guts


On May 21, two new exhibits will open at the American Textile History Museum. We are thankful we had the foresight to build two smaller exhibit galleries in our newly constructed space rather than one large gallery. This foresight gives us the ability to have two exhibits of a very different nature that have relevance to life in their own ways. We can also have one larger exhibit that utilizes both galleries. In this case we’ve chosen the two-exhibit approach and we can say what we have in store for you and our visitors are two exhibits that are very different.

Exquisitely displayed in our first floor Stevens Gallery will be:

Grace and Glamour: 1930s Fashions

This exhibit, curated from our own collection by ATHM’s curator, Karen Herbaugh, displays the graceful cuts and glamorous fabrics of the 1930s, the styles which replaced the boxy and boyish styles of the previous decade. In the face of economic hardship, people embraced the streamlined shape, elegant styles, and newly invented fibers of a hopeful modernism. This exhibit shows dresses and accessories typical of this extraordinary decade. But there’s more!! Can you imagine a science and math (geometry) spin to this 1930s exhibit? Well, imagine one. Madelyn Shaw (a renowned textile expert and historian who frequently collaborates with ATHM) will speak to this issue (time and date TBD) and will explain the math and geometric connections before our very eyes. At the 10th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, Madelyn made a presentation that said in part, “Physics and mathematics are not usually perceived as being closely connected with textile and clothing design or construction, either by scientists or by artists. Those who make clothing from cloth, however, must always take into account two geometries: the plane geometry of the cloth and the solid geometry of the body. In order to clothe the body we begin with cloth. Woven, knitted, knotted, or otherwise constructed, the inherent structure of cloth reflects mathematical principles. Interlaced threads create square or triangular grids, techniques such as knitting or crocheting can make grids of any shape, from triangular to polyhedral.”

What’s more, Karen Herbaugh and Dave Unger, our Director of Interpretation, just explained to me how the fashion of the time was also a theme seen in the Art Deco architecture of that era. For example, they told me the Empire State Building and its lines of design are somewhat synergistic with the fashion lines of the times – clean, tall, sleek lines. Thankfully, they connected these dots for me, as I’m not sure I would have stumbled across it otherwise. Despite the tough times of the Depression, fashion and architecture showed some real modernism, and some belief in and hope for the future. Another historic moment in the lifeline of amazing textiles!

Not to be outdone, the Lowell Sun Charities Gallery on the second floor will host:

Marking Time: Voyage to Vietnam

In 1971 I was 18 years old with the military draft still in place. My destiny could have been Vietnam. I was one of the lucky ones whose birth date meant the 314th day of 365 in the calendar year to be used to select young men to fight in the unpopular war in Southeast Asia. There was no way my number would come up and I would never have to put my life at risk. If I had been chosen, I don’t know what I would have done. I don’t know that I had the guts that some of my friends had, those who went off to serve our country. They went off and those who were lucky enough to come back came back to a disgraceful welcome home for honoring their service commitment to the greatest country on earth. They didn’t choose to go. They went in service!

The graffiti left aboard the U.S. Navy Ship General Nelson M. Walker has proven to be very important in understanding the era of the 1960s and America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. University of Virginia Institute for Public History director Phyllis K. Leffler said of the communication form:
“…Vietnam graffiti offers an unusual window into the lives of troops in limbo between the shores of America and their landing in Vietnam. The messages and drawings of soldiers left on their cots while traveling on the troopship U.S.N.S. General Nelson M. Walker reveal the inner feelings of human beings confronting potential death, separation from loved ones, unknown and alien territory. The graffiti, which constitutes new primary artifacts, provide identity markers for the soldiers. Their personalities, relationships, regional connections, and fears come alive through their drawings. This is a meaningful way to juxtapose the public and official face of war with the personal and private one.”

One poignant story in the exhibit: On a hot July morning in 1998, Vietnam veteran Jerry Barker leaned on the stern railing of the General Nelson M. Walker and stared into the water of Virginia’s James River. He was shielded from the bright sun by the steel overhead of the ship’s main deck. Large steel vertical girders around the stern created gigantic “picture windows” in this almost outdoor “room.”

In 1967 Barker, then 20 years old, with his 2nd Squadron, 1st Cavalry comrades, were on the crowded troopship Walker going to war. “It was full of people,” he remembered, “always people, wherever you went.”

Before long Jerry found a personal, quiet space at the ship’s stern. “At night there was nothing neater than the dark with a zillion stars,” he recalled. “And you’d hear a ‘swrrrrrrr’ sound, going through the water. (The ship’s two propellers were just below his quiet place where he again stood during the 1998 visit to the ship.) It was one of those places you could get away to and be by yourself. This was the perfect spot.” The veteran paused on the Walker’s main deck at the end of his visit to the rusting ship, lost in his thoughts. “She took me to the most significant thing that ever happened in my lifetime,” he finally said. “She’s the one that took me there.” Jerry became the chief of police in Indianapolis, Indiana, and serves as a director of the Vietnam Graffiti Project.

Two very different exhibits.

Two very different glimpses into American life.

Many pieces of textile relevance.

Jim Coleman
President & CEO

Glamour and Grace: 1930s Fashions opens May 21 and runs through October 16.
Marking Time: Voyage to Vietnam opens May 21 and runs through September 25.

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