Textiles are some of the least durable artifacts that we have in the collections of The Henry Ford. Early textiles are usually made from the “big four”—cotton, linen, silk, and wool. All these materials can disintegrate, be eaten by insects, make homes for mice, and be degraded by mold and mildew. In addition, heat and light affect the color and the integrity of the fabrics. Here at the museum, we are fortunate to have a representative sampling of garments and textiles from the 18th century to modern times.
What We Know about Our Suit
Even though we don’t know who wore the suit or exactly when, it still directs us to a point in time.
This suit has no known provenance (specific history), having been acquired from Anna Brix, an antiques dealer who lived in Philadelphia. The suit is believed to be French or British, but we have no records linking it to a person or even a family. We don’t know exactly when it was made, but this style lasted through the 18th century. By comparing it with similar garments, we can agree that it was probably worn for the first time in the late 18th century. We can tell it is a late-18th-century jacket because the fit is slim, the front is worn unbuttoned and curves to the back, and overall the cut is shorter than in previous decades. It was likely worn to court, or at least to very formal occasions. A suit such as this would have been worn with a highly decorated waistcoat, silk stockings, a cotton or linen shirt with fancy cuffs, and a jabot (frill or ruffle). The back has dual tails and three vents, making it easier and more stylish to wear when mounted on a horse. The colors are all natural dyes and have held up well with age.
Close-up of embroidery. / Photo by Joan Sheridan
The Making of the Suit Coat
Suits such as this were made to attend court and other high occasions, often mere days before they were needed. Hence, the use of embroidered panels, which reduced the time the tailor needed.
Embroidered panel for a different waistcoat, uncut. / From the collections of Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (1962-54-31)
The coat is made of silk taffeta and was embroidered before the suit was made with silk threads using French knots, satin stitch, and stem stitch. Well-to-do men would visit a merchant to select a color and embroidery pattern, often from the shelf. The merchant would then coordinate with a tailor to custom-make the suit. The embroidered fabric, shown in the example above, even included embroidered rounds that would be crafted into fabric covered buttons by the tailor.
Showing cut to shorten jacket at the top right of the pocket. / Photo by Joan Sheridan
The embroidered silk was originally made for a taller man than ours. If you look carefully at the image above, you can see where the embroidery was shortened at pocket height. It is blunt cut—sometimes the embroiderers were brought in to camouflage the adjustment and make it less visible, but not in this case. This is the normal position for a height adjustment, as when the wearer stood with their hands clasped in front of them, the seam was covered.
Embroidery on buttons on back of coat. / Photo by Joan Sheridan
Additional piecing is visible on the back of the garment at the top of the side vents where curved embroidered pieces back the accent buttons.
Discovering the Secrets of the Suit
Being able to look closely at the suit, both inside and out, was a rare treat.
Markings from original button placement are visible above top of cuff; also, the slightly lighter color of silk shows the depth of lengthening. / Photo by Joan Sheridan
Upon closer examination, the outside of the suit tells us even more. The jacket sleeves have been made about two inches longer. There is less wear above the cuff and pin pricks can be seen where the buttons were originally located. It is interesting that the cuffs both show significant wear at the bottom from before and after remodeling.
The knee breeches were refitted to accommodate a larger person. Each side seam was let out, and there, similar to above the coat cuffs, you can see lighter silk with less wear. Finally, the back of the breeches have a wedge of silk inserted to give more room. Small areas of stress at the waist and the drop flap were mended to provide strength, but the breeches are in good condition structurally.
Weighted Silk Is Fragile
Silk has a long and harrowing history, and this suit is a good example of why the use of weighted silk has been greatly reduced in the last century.
Shattered silk at the right shoulder and collar. / Photo by Joan Sheridan
We estimate that the coat was relined in the mid-to-late 1800s, as the lining was shattered throughout because it was made using weighted silk. Then and now, silk was sold by weight. When raw silk is processed, up to 30% of its weight is lost when the sericin (the protein that holds silkworm cocoons together) is cleaned from the tough but delicate fibers. Manufacturers compensate for that loss by adding metal salts to the silk, which adhere to the fabric, causing it to weigh more. What they didn’t know then is that this will forever damage the fabric. Shattered silk cannot be repaired and continues to disintegrate with age. The practice of weighting was regulated by the Federal Trade Commission in 1938 to require labeling of silks containing more than 10% metal salts (15% for silk colored black).
The suit’s shattered lining was in poor condition (see image above) and we decided that it should be replaced with modern, non-weighted silk in a matching color. This also allowed us to see what was inside the garment—where the story continues.
A Rare Treat: Viewing the Inside
Seeing the internal structure produced answers and questions.
A quilt of patches, buckram, and pocket provides insight into the speed with which the coat was made. / Photo by Joan Sheridan
Suits such as these were often hastily made. The outside was sumptuously beautiful with even, neat stitches, but the inside, not so much! The inside would never be seen.
It took many hours to extract the lining from the suit. The stitches that attached the lining to the coat were exceptionally fine and firm. Removing them took small scissors, tweezers, and, at times, a magnifying glass. With the lining separated from the jacket, more interesting things were revealed. It isn’t often that you get to see the original inner-workings of an 18th-century tailor’s creation (see image above).
Mildew and fibers from wear prior to vacuuming. / Photo by Joan Sheridan
One thing that was immediately noticeable was that the light blotches on the outside of the garment were caused by mildew. At some point, the suit was stored in a humid environment. The mildew was an old problem, since our museum storage is climate controlled, but the residue still had to be removed. Since a liquid cleaner could not be applied to the silk, the inside of the coat was vacuumed through a screen, then a stubby paintbrush was used to lift mildew spores before vacuuming again. This treatment made a noticeable difference in appearance.
Buckram stiffens the inside of the front of the coat. / Photo by Joan Sheridan
Inside we see the use of buckram as a stiffener around the edges of the front, much as interfacing would be used today. Buckram was and is made of a coarse hemp, linen, or cotton fabric. The buckram was pieced, perhaps because it was scraps, or perhaps that was how wide the fabric was. Cream-colored silk had been sewn over the buckram from the pocket level to the collar, possibly to reduce friction between the silk and the stiffening fabric (see below).
The left shoulder linen tow shoulder pad covered with the original silk. / Photo by Joan Sheridan
Linen tow was used as padding to create the sloped shoulder shape popular in the late 18th century. This linen waste is full of bits of the stem of the flax plant and it has held together and done its job for over 200 years. The tow was—and is—partially covered by the original white silk lining.
A History Mystery
Anytime we deal with historic objects, there are often more questions than answers. It is interesting to try to suss out the “why?” and apply what we know to arrive at possible solutions. However, some mysteries will always remain mysteries.
Squiggles on the right pocket—partially for mending, but they beg the question, why? / Photo by Joan Sheridan
The stitching used inside the coat is often coarse. A larger thread was used to bind seams, keep the shoulder pads in place, and attach silk to the buckram. Inside is a patchwork of fabric. The linen pocket linings revealed another interesting find. Both pockets had holes that were inexpertly darned with a snakelike pattern that continues from the darning. We can surmise that the original wearer of the suit was right-handed because the right pocket is very stained—by tobacco or a handkerchief, perhaps?
Replacing the Lining
The lining adds support to the garment, transferring stress to itself and away from the fragile and elaborate embroidery and construction.
Pattern making from the shattered silk lining. / Photo by Joan Sheridan
Once removed, the fragile lining was separated into pieces to be used for making a new pattern. From the pattern a polyester sample lining was made and fitted into the jacket. Adjustments were noted on the paper pattern and revisions made until it was as close as it could be. Polyester is not a substitute for silk, as it behaves differently, but it did serve a purpose—knowing that the pattern was close enough.
Small tools and thread are less likely to damage the delicate fabric. / Photo by Joan Sheridan
With the modified pattern in hand, the cream silk was cut and sewn in with a few minor modifications. The lining was attached using a long blind stitch, unlike the original whip stitching. Changing the stitch type reduced the number of holes that had to be put into the garment, and fewer stitches mean less damage to the original green fabric.
The finished collar and newly lined coat, before pressing. / Photo by Joan Sheridan
With the body lining sewn in, the neck lining was next. The edge of the collar was quite worn and treatment was required. A piece of bronze tulle (fine netting) was sewn to the outside edge of the collar next to the main body of embroidery, but not over it. It was then stretched over the damaged area and attached to the inside of the collar. The collar lining was cut freehand because the original is in many pieces. Once the lining was in place, the tulle mend became nearly invisible.
Finishing the Work
The sleeves are very of-the-period. They are curved in shape and tell the story of a suit that was worn often and remodeled in its second life. The sleeve remodeling was likely done at the time the lining was replaced in the mid-1800s.
Two levels of wear are evident on the sleeves./ Photo by Joan Sheridan
Conservation Specialist Claire Zimmeth completed the project by mending the sleeves and sewing in the sleeve lining. Since there was damage at the end of the original sleeve length and at the end of the remodeled/current length, it was decided that the entire area should be covered with tulle. Again, the tulle was placed to avoid covering embroidery (see the work-in-progress image below).
Covering the sleeves with tulle (in progress). / Photo by Joan Sheridan
Bringing It All Together
This suit is an excellent example of 18th-century tailoring, style, color, and embroidery talent. It reminds us that court styles didn’t change much over more than a hundred years and didn’t keep up with the current fashions.
Working on this garment was challenging, mainly in that there is always concern about handling fragile, antique textiles. It was a privilege to work on the suit and be able to explore the history of the suit via the wear, stitches, and inner construction. Even though this jacket has no formal provenance, it still has a story to tell. The suit will be on display in the Fashion and Nature exhibit at the Grand Rapids Public Museum from April 23–July 23, 2022.
Our latest installation of What We Wore, featuring designer Peggy Hoyt. / THF189263
Our current What We Wore exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation features garments and hats designed by Peggy Hoyt.
Advertisement for Peggy Hoyt, Inc., 1923. / THF624600
Peggy Hoyt, from “The Right Angle,” The Christy Walsh Syndicate, 1922. Gift of Colleen Cruise Reynolds. / THF626352, detail
Peggy Hoyt began her career making hats as a milliner’s apprentice and went on to become a highly successful fashion designer whose creations would rival those of Paris.
The Early Years
Peggy Hoyt was born Mary Alice Stephens in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1886, to Charles J. Stephens, a partner in a wholesale lumber business, and Carrie Stiff Stephens.
As a child, Mary Alice liked to draw and paint. She had a keen interest in clothes, often designing and making clothing for her large family of paper dolls. When her father’s illness resulted in his inability to resume his business activities, the family’s fortunes declined. A Civil War veteran, Charles Stephens was by 1905 living in the National Home for Disabled Soldiers in Hampton, Virginia, where he died in 1915.
Carrie Stephens moved with her daughter to New York City about 1900. Here, she felt she would have a better chance to get work that offered more than a bare living, as well as provide educational advantages for her daughter, Mary Alice. Though finding work turned out to be harder than anticipated, Carrie Stephens eventually found a job as a comparison shopper for a large department store. In the years following, Carrie Stephens worked her way up to a position as one of the highest salaried European buyers for the department store B. Altman.
In 1905, 18-year-old Mary Alice Stephens married Frank Hoyt in Monterey, Massachusetts—though the couple separated after only 18 months of marriage and Mary Alice then returned to New York City. Life on a 500-acre farm in the Berkshires didn’t suit Mary Alice—she missed the excitement of urban life. She and Frank Hoyt finally divorced in 1911; she kept her married name.
Becoming Peggy Hoyt
In her late teens, Hoyt worked as an apprentice in a Fifth Avenue millinery (hat) shop. By 1910, with a talent for design, a flair for business, and $300 borrowed from her mother, Hoyt established her own millinery shop in tiny quarters on upper Fifth Avenue, a shopping destination lined with luxurious stores. A year later, the business was successful enough to warrant an upgrade. She rented a larger room in the same building and hired an assistant. By 1915, Peggy Hoyt, Inc. was born.
In February 1918, Hoyt married Aubrey Eads—an officer in the American Naval Aviation Detachment who had recently returned after 14 months in France during World War I. Eads became her business partner.
A Leading American Designer
In the late 1910s, Hoyt moved her growing business into the elegant Phillip Rhinelander mansion at 16 East 55th Street in Manhattan, where she added women’s clothing to her offerings. The mansion, located in Manhattan’s Upper East Side shopping area, provided over 27,000 square feet of space with a stately white marble hall and a magnificent stairway. Hoyt transformed the mansion into one of the most exquisite fashion centers in America. The first floor became a reception room, salon, and fitting rooms. The second floor was devoted entirely to millinery. The top floors held workrooms and a lunchroom for employees.
Peggy Hoyt leased the Phillip Rhinelander mansion on at 16 East 55th Street, transforming it into a stunning setting for her increasingly successful salon. Gift of Colleen Cruise Reynolds. / THF120772, THF120770
A few years after she moved to the Rhinelander mansion, Peggy Hoyt ventured into theatrical costume design for a brief time. Her elegant costumes for Henry W. Savage’s revival of The Merry Widow in September 1921 were a huge success. The following year, she created costumes for the Savage musical The Clinging Vine.
Program for The Merry Widow. The operetta ran for 56 performances in fall of 1921 at the Knickerbocker Theatre in New York. Note the credits for Peggy Hoyt at the top of page 33 (you can click through to our Digital Collections to zoom in). / THF624648, THF624630, THF624638
Hoyt quickly became one of the foremost American designers of gowns and millinery. Her designs were creative and unique, employing her signature pastels, rhinestone ornaments, and handkerchief hems. Hoyt designed each of the hundreds of gowns and hats in her shop, taking great pride in her work. For nearly twenty years, Hoyt dressed a small, but exclusive, clientele in every large American city.
Advertisement: "Peggy Hoyt: New York's Smartest Millinery and Dressmaking Establishment," April 1925. / THF624602
Peggy Hoyt discussed the type of garment, color, style, and fabric with her client, and then sketched the designs. Hoyt oversaw the next steps in the workroom, where staff cut and sewed the garment. Clients had their very own dress form, an adjustable mannequin on which Hoyt’s designs came to life. At the client’s next appointment, the garment was taken to the front of the salon for the final fitting.
A Peggy Hoyt Client: Elizabeth Parke Firestone
Elizabeth Parke Firestone, about 1927. Gift of Mrs. Harvey Firestone, Jr. / THF119839
Receipt for Mrs. H.S. Firestone, Jr. from Peggy Hoyt, Inc., 1934. Gift of Martha F. Ford. / THF626330
Elizabeth Parke Firestone of Akron, Ohio—wife of tire magnate Harvey S. Firestone, Jr.—was among the wealthy women who frequented Peggy Hoyt’s salon. Mrs. Firestone traveled to New York, where Hoyt would confer with her client and then create the beautiful garments and hats for Mrs. Firestone shown here.
Evening dress designed by Peggy Hoyt, 1928. Gift of Mrs. Harvey Firestone, Jr. / THF6688
Evening dress designed by Peggy Hoyt, 1928-1929. Gift of Mrs. Harvey Firestone, Jr. /THF6720
Chemise dress designed by Peggy Hoyt, 1929. Gift of Mrs. Harvey Firestone, Jr. / THF6710
Evening dress designed by Peggy Hoyt, 1931. Gift of Mrs. Harvey Firestone, Jr. /THF6731
Cloche designed by Peggy Hoyt, 1920-1935. Gift of Martha Firestone Ford and Anne Firestone Ball. / THF17330
Cloche designed by Peggy Hoyt, 1925-1936. Gift of Mrs. Harvey Firestone, Jr. / THF30500
Picture hat designed by Peggy Hoyt, 1925-1935. Gift of Mrs. Harvey Firestone, Jr. / THF6754
Picture hat designed by Peggy Hoyt, 1926-1936. Gift of Mrs. Harvey Firestone, Jr. / THF6747
An Unhappy Ending
Peggy Hoyt, Inc., box lid, 1925-1935. Gift of Colleen Cruise Reynolds. / THF188547
At its height, Peggy Hoyt, Inc., earned over $1 million annually and had hundreds of employees. Yet Peggy Hoyt, Inc.—and Peggy herself—would not survive the depression of the 1930s as the faltering economy brought down the thriving business.
Peggy Hoyt died by suicide on October 26, 1937 (though her family maintained that her death resulted from pneumonia). Hoyt, who had an intense dislike of personal publicity, had asked her mother and husband to honor her wishes for privacy upon her death. At the request of Hoyt’s employees, her husband did consent to a small service at the Little Church Around the Corner (the Church of the Transfiguration) before Hoyt’s body was brought to Detroit and laid to rest in Elmwood Cemetery.
Peggy Hoyt, Inc., briefly continued after Hoyt’s passing, with her mother and husband maintaining the salon until its bankruptcy and liquidation in 1939–1940.
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Stacy McNally, Local History & Genealogy Librarian at the Public Libraries of Saginaw, and Gil Gallagher, curatorial volunteer at The Henry Ford, for their meticulous research assistance on Peggy Hoyt. Many thanks also to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.
Cocooned within 21 layers of synthetics, neoprene rubber, and metalized polyester films, Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin was well protected from the airless moon’s extremes of heat and cold, deadly solar ultraviolet radiation, and even the off chance of a hurtling micrometeorite. / Photo by Neil Armstrong/NASA
It’s possibly the most recognizable image in all of human history: Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the moon, his left arm drifting up as if checking the time during a stroll through the park.
The photo sticks in the imagination more than any image of sleek rockets on the launchpad or metallic modules landing on an inhospitable world. Perhaps it’s the casual, individual bravado oozing off Aldrin’s puffed-up frame that truly captures the essence of humans pushing past the ultimate boundary: space.
And yet the spacesuit is rarely the star of the human spaceflight epic. Which is a shame, since this was the most intimate component of the engineering endeavor that landed man on the moon 50 years ago—intimate also because the surprising winner of NASA’s spacesuit contract was a spinoff of Playtex, the underwear manufacturer which still makes items from bras to feminine products to this day.
Playtex made everyday women’s girdles like those shown in this ad before making an unlikely jump to producing clothing for space travel to the moon in the 1960s. / Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
At the core is the idea of the “human factor,” often overlooked by engineers in their quest to reach the lunar surface. The Saturn V rocket and the lunar module were exquisitely engineered, with sharp, clean lines governed by the unchanging forces of physics: thrust, gravity, air resistance. But the same equations are blurred when dealing with the human form. “The human body doesn’t operate from first principles,” said de Monchaux.
In the race to win the initial suit contract, companies such as David Clark Company, which made the Mercury mission spacesuits, and Hamilton Standard, a division of conglomerate United Aircraft, produced concepts informed by their decades-long experience with high-altitude pressure suits. These options proved much more difficult to maneuver than the suit produced by ILC Dover, the Playtex spinoff whose patented “convolutes” included rubber identical to that filling Playtex’s girdle molds, as well as nylon tricot and webbing taken from the supplies feeding its brassiere assembly lines.
The Apollo spacesuit designed by ILC Dover and worn on the moon had 21 layers, 20 of which were created with synthetics made by chemical giant DuPont. Familiar household names like nylon, Lycra, and Teflon were found in various layers, a fact DuPont proudly advertised at the time.
In 1966, events came to a head when a new ILC spacesuit had to compete once more against prototypes from Hamilton Standard and David Clark. Test subjects using the competing suits had trouble moving around, operating switches, and fitting in and out of the mock landing module. Imagine if Aldrin and Neil Armstrong had touched down successfully on the moon only to not fit through the hatch to step on the surface!
Though each competing suit was custom fitted, only the 21-layer ILC Dover soft suit was sewn by hand by a hotshot crew of the best seamstresses taken from Playtex’s sewing floor—eschewing paint-by-numbers engineering in favor of highly personalized, artisanal craftsmanship. Each spacesuit created by the ILC Dover team bore a laminated photograph of the astronaut it belonged to in order to create a connection to the person whom they were literally keeping alive with their craftsmanship.
Arlene Thalene of ILC Dover inspects a spacesuit’s mylar insulation layers. / Photo courtesy of ILC Dover, LP
Their knowledge, gained by fashioning bras and girdles for women’s activewear, proved indispensable to creating a superior product. The material itself was co-opted: “The rubber that made the suit was literally from the same tank that was, originally at least, supplying the girdle-making that had made Playtex’s fortune,” said de Monchaux.
ILC Dover employee Velma Breeding installs a bladder into a boot. / Photo courtesy of ILC Dover, LP
The ILC Dover suit bested the others in official NASA tests, but the systems-engineering bureaucracy of the Apollo program was still skeptical of an untested spinoff holding such a critical contract. When again faced with competition for the last phase of Apollo’s missions (numbers 14-17), the ILC Dover team even resorted to filming a test subject playing football in a pressurized suit for several hours. “And, as became clear on watching the films, the suited subject’s attempts were at the very least equivalent to those of an engineer in shirtsleeves and slacks who joined him on the field,” wrote de Monchaux. “ILC Dover, née Playtex, had won the Apollo game.”
A composite of the final drawings from ILC Dover depicts (from right to left) an Apollo 11 spacesuit’s pressure garment assembly, a suit with its Thermal Micrometeoroid Garment (TMG) attached, and an astronaut wearing a suit with TMG outer cover, gloves, and helmet. Once securely attached to the spacesuit’s inner pressure garment, the multilayered TMG protected astronauts against micrometeoroid impacts, solar and galactic radiation, thermal conduction, and abrasion, and also provided fire protection. / Drawings courtesy of ILC Dover, LP
Dressed for Health
More than 50 years after the Apollo 11 astronauts donned their spacesuits on the moon, I’m sitting in an office at hygiene and health giant Essity’s facility in North Carolina trying to pull on what looks like your average thick knee-high black socks. Kevin Tucker, the global technical innovations manager for a division of Essity, chuckles while I struggle with the fabric as it tightens like a vice. Tucker is in charge of the company’s work with NASA to develop a compression suit for astronauts returning from space. He points out as he puts the socks away that future NASA astronauts will wear something with twice the compression power.
Essity’s bread and butter is making compression garments for people with venous and lymphatic diseases. That’s when the body has issues with pumping fluids against the pull of gravity, causing symptoms from lack of feeling in extremities to loss of consciousness. It’s something we have all experienced to some degree, said Tucker. “If you’re sick in bed with the flu and you’re lying down for a long period of time and you have to go run to the bathroom, the first step you usually take you end up on your nose.”
Astronauts also have trouble with fluid control. When they first get up into space and gravity is no longer a factor, fluids are pumped more into their torso and head. That’s why new arrivals to the International Space Station have puffy faces. After a while, the body adjusts and pumps less to accommodate the lack of gravity. But the problem rears its head again upon re-entry and the rapid reintroduction to gravity. At that point, the body’s fluid pumping is weakened, and astronauts often have to be carried out of the capsule. “This sudden rush of fluid away from the head and heart down into the legs can affect your consciousness,” said Tucker. That’s something his team is trying to change.
To help NASA, Essity is applying its expertise in designing compressive socks, sleeves, and girdles to create a compression suit future astronauts would wear on re-entry to prevent or avoid the sudden redistribution of fluids to the lower extremities upon return to Earth’s gravity. When Tucker lays out the current design on a table, it’s a crisscross of tight black fabric and a few zippers, woven in a way reminiscent of those fancy yoga pants that have sheer patterns.
Health giant Essity is currently working with NASA to create a compression suit that astronauts will wear upon re-entry to Earth. The garments, shown separately here for illustrative purposes, will prevent or avoid the sudden redistribution of fluids to the lower extremities upon return to Earth’s gravity. / Photo courtesy of Essity
It’s slated to be the first layer of gear NASA astronauts will put on as they prepare to splash down—so getting stuck as you pull on the suit is simply not an option. Another “soft” consideration is that the astronauts will have to wear these for hours in a seated, upside-down position, and tests of earlier designs irritated subjects’ bent knees. The newest version of the compression suit comes slightly pre-bent at the joint, making it more comfortable.
The Human Factor and What’s Next
The human body was not meant for space travel, and the soft problems it presents require innovative solutions with intimate knowledge of the human body. Some of those challenges (and ways suits can help) are listed below.
Vacuum: Exposed to the vacuum of space, a body’s fluids would start boiling away as the body puffs up. A spacesuit protects you—but, be warned, it will puff up, too.
Temperature: Outside the International Space Station, the temperature swings wildly from 250 to -250 degrees Fahrenheit. But with no atmosphere to transfer heat or cold, a well-insulated spacesuit keeps you comfy.
Radiation: Above the protection of the Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field, cosmic radiation is the most consistent health concern. A spacesuit provides very limited protection—as does the space station.
Lack of Gravity: Low or no gravity makes muscles atrophy, bones lose density, and fluids redistribute. NASA is working on it.
Unfortunately, the human body is not always something the engineering culture of rocket scientists takes into account. “We’re still thinking about the engineering and the propulsion systems and the vehicle, but we’re not thinking enough about the pink, squishy things that are in the middle of that vehicle,” said Diana Dayal, who did a year-long apprenticeship at the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI). Funded by NASA’s Human Research Program, NSBRI, which closed in 2017, was NASA’s lead partner in space biomedical research and provided hands-on lab opportunities for young scientists, engineers, and physicians such as Dayal to access careers in human spaceflight.
On future, longer space missions, the human factor will be amplified. New challenges will arise from the long stint in low gravity. “The deconditioning of your bones and muscles is going to be an unavoidable problem on a three-year Mars mission,” said Dayal. “How are you supposed to send people to Mars and expect them to set up a habitat?”
Astronaut Neil Armstrong—shown here aboard the Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle, the first crewed vehicle to land on the moon—later quipped that his spacesuit was one of the most widely photographed spacecrafts in history. Decades later, he sent a note to the team that designed the spacesuit, complementing it and calling it “tough, reliable and almost cuddly.” You can see the “cuddly” spacesuit worn by Armstrong, held by the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, on their collections website. / Photo by NASA / Edwin E. Aldrin Jr.
One of the solutions being explored is enhancing the spacesuit with an exoskeleton—essentially empowering the humans by linking them to a stronger robotic carapace. This is a good idea, but the prototype Dayal saw at NASA’s Johnson Space Center was so large and cumbersome, it was hard to imagine it on an average person.
“It’s so cool that you basically have all this circuitry that simulates nerves, but at the same time, who did you build this for? Who’s going to wear it?” They were questions posed by Dayal’s group, she said, pointing out that current designs lack sufficient modularity to adjust to different body types.
While the lessons learned in developing the soft Apollo spacesuit decades earlier may have to be revisited as we look to longer missions, it’s also an opportunity to push the boundaries of design. “All of your constraints are out the window; everything is a variable,” said Dayal. “If anything, designing for space should help us better design for Earth.”
Our current What We Wore exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation features clothing from generations of one family. / THF188474
In 1935, 59-year-old Louise Hungerford sent a trunk full of clothing to Henry Ford—clothing that had belonged to her mother’s family, the Mitchells, who had lived in the village of Port Washington, New York, for six generations.
Ford had opened his museum to the public only two years before. Louise Hungerford was one of the hundreds of people who sent letters to Henry Ford at this time offering to give or sell him objects for his museum. The clothing she sent remains among the oldest in The Henry Ford’s collection.
Map of Port Washington in 1873—the Mitchell home is highlighted in red. / (Not from the collections of The Henry Ford.)
The Mitchell Family and Port Washington
Since the 1690s, the Mitchells had been respected members of the Long Island community of Port Washington as it evolved from farming to shellfishing and construction sand and gravel. In the early 1800s, Port Washington (then called Cow Neck) provided garden produce for New York City residents and hay for their horses—all shipped to the city by packet ships. By the mid-1800s, oystering was profitable in the area. After the Civil War, the sand and gravel industry took hold, providing construction materials for the growing city of New York.
By the early 1900s, the village had become a summer resort and home for the wealthy. The Long Island Railroad reached Port Washington in 1898, providing convenient transportation to the area from New York City. The city’s Knickerbocker Yacht Club moved to Port Washington in 1907. By the mid-1930s—when Louise Hungerford sent Henry Ford the letter and trunk full of family clothing--Port Washington’s quaint homes and wooded hills had been giving way to prestigious residences and sailboats for over 30 years.
Postcard views of Port Washington sent by tourists to family or friends about 1910. / THF624985 and THF624981
Mitchell family occupations evolved through the years along with Port Washington’s local economy: farmer, ship’s captain, stagecoach operator, land developer, highway commissioner, librarian.
Preserving the Past
The Mitchell family had changed with the times—yet hung onto vestiges of its past. Family clothing had been stored for over a century, first in Manhasset Hall, the house that had been home to the Mitchells since the late 1760s. Generations of the extended Mitchell family were born there, grew up there, married there, raised families there, and died there.
By the early 1900s, the Mitchell family home—added onto over the years before being sold out of the family—offered accommodations to tourists. The house was later torn down to make way for a housing development. / THF624821
When the Mitchell home was sold in 1887, the trunk full of clothing remained in the family. By the early 1900s, it was probably kept by Louise Hungerford’s aunt, Wilhelmina, and then by Louise’s mother, Mary. Wilhelmina had remained in Port Washington, helping establish the town’s first library and serving as its first librarian.
Port Washington Public Library, where Wilhelmina Mitchell served as the first librarian. / THF624979
Wilhelmina’s sister, Mary Hungerford, lived most of her adult life in Watertown, New York, after her marriage to produce dealer Egbert Hungerford. But, sometime before 1930, Mary—now a widow—returned to her hometown of Port Washington, along with her daughter, Louise. Wilhelmina Mitchell passed away in 1927; Mary Mitchell Hungerford died in 1933. Fewer Mitchell family members remained in Port Washington to cherish these tucked-away pieces of the family’s past. So Louise Hungerford wrote her letter, offering the trunk and its contents to Henry Ford for his museum.
What clothing was in the Mitchell family trunk? Once-fashionable apparel. Garments outgrown. Clothing saved for sentimental reasons—perhaps worn on a special occasion or kept in someone’s memory. Everything was handsewn; much was probably homemade.
Louise Hungerford—if she knew—didn’t provide the names of the family members who had once worn these items, and Henry Ford’s assistants didn’t think to ask. For a few garments, though, we made some guesses based on recent research. For many, the mystery remains.
Flat-soled slippers were the most common shoe type worn by women during the first part of the 1800s. The delicate pair above might have been donned for a special occasion. Footwear did not yet come in rights and lefts—the soles were straight.
The high-waisted style and pastel silk fabric of the child’s dress depicted above mirror women’s fashions of the 1810s. This dress was probably worn with pantalettes (long underwear with a lace-trimmed hem) by a little girl—though a boy could have worn it as well. Infants and toddlers of both genders wore dresses at this time. The tucks could be let down as the child grew.
Gaiters—low boots with fabric uppers and leather toes and heels—were very popular as boots became the footwear of choice for walking. To give the appearance of daintiness, shoes were made on narrow lasts, a foot-shaped form. By the late 1850s, boots made entirely of leather were the most popular.
By the late 1700s, women’s fashions were less full and less formal than earlier. The side seams of this dress are split—allowing entry into a pair of separate pockets that would be tied around the waist. The dress, lined with a different fabric, appears to be reversible. The dress above was possibly worn by Rebecca Hewlett Mitchell, who died in 1790—or by her sister Jane Hewlett, who became the second wife of Rebecca’s husband, John Mitchell, Jr.
In the 1700s and early 1800s, women’s gowns didn’t have pockets stitched in. Instead, women wore separate pockets that tied around their waist. A woman put her hand through a slit in her skirt to pull out what she needed. This pocket has the initials JhM cross-stitched on the back. They were possibly owned by John Mitchell, Jr.’s second wife, Jane Hewlett Mitchell (born 1749), or by his unmarried daughter, Jane H. Mitchell (born 1785).
During the early 1800s, boys wore Eton suits—short jackets with long, straight trousers—for school or special occasions. The trousers buttoned to a shirt or suspenders under the short jacket. This one, made of silk, was a more expensive version, possibly worn by Charles W. Mitchell, who was born in 1816.
The enormous, exaggerated sleeves of 1830s women’s fashion needed something to hold them up. Sleeve plumpers did the trick, often in the form of down-filled pads like these that would tie on at the shoulder under the dress.
A corset was a supportive garment worn under a woman’s clothing. A busk—a flat piece of wood, metal, or animal bone—slid into the fabric pocket in front to keep the corset straight, while also ensuring an upright posture and a flatter stomach.
In the mid-to-late 1700s, women’s gowns had an open front or were looped up to reveal the petticoat underneath. Fashionable quilted petticoats usually had decorative stitching along the hemline. Women might quilt their own petticoats or buy one made in England—American merchants imported thousands during this time.
Collapsible calash bonnets were named after the folding tops of horse-drawn carriages. These bonnets had been popular during the late 1700s with a balloon-shaped hood that protected the elaborate hairstyles then in fashion. Calash bonnets returned in the 1820s and 1830s, this time following current fashion—a small crown at the back of the head and an open brim. The ruffle at the back shaded the neck.
When Henry Ford was collecting during the mid-1900s, many of the objects were gathered from New England or the Midwest—often from people of similar backgrounds to his. We are looking to make our clothing collection and the stories it tells more inclusive and diverse. Do you have clothing you would like us to consider for The Henry Ford’s collection? Please contact us.
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Joan DeMeo Lager of the Cow Neck Peninsula Historical Society, Phyllis Sternemann, church historian at Christ Church Manhasset, and Gil Gallagher, curatorial volunteer at The Henry Ford, for meticulous research that revealed the story of generations of Port Washington Mitchells. Thanks also to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.
This 1881 Singer sewing machine is on exhibit in Made in America in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.Isaac Singer developed the first practical sewing machine for home use in the 1850s. / THF173635
Innovation has intended, and often unintended, effects. Take the sewing machine, for example. Its invention in the mid-1840s would make clothing more available and affordable. Yet, ironically, the sewing machine also resulted in a decline of sewing skills—not immediately, but over time. Nowadays, few of us know how to make clothing.
Once, things were very different. For centuries, sewing a family’s clothing by hand was a time-consuming and constant task for women. A woman often made hundreds of garments in her lifetime; all young girls were taught to sew.
A trade card for Clark's O.N.T. Spool Cotton from the late nineteenth century depicts a young girl using her sewing skills to repair a rip in her brother’s jacket so that “It will be as good as new and Ma won’t know!” / THF298697
When the sewing machine came on the scene during the mid-1800s, this handy invention made a big difference. For example, it now took about an hour to sew a man’s shirt by machine—rather than 14 hours by hand. In the 1850s, clothing manufacturers quickly acquired sewing machines for their factories, and, as they became less expensive, people bought them for home use.
While machines made it easier tomake clothing at home, buying clothing ready-made was even less work. By the early 1900s, the ready-to-wear industry offered a broad range of attractive clothing for men, women, and children. Increasingly, people bought their clothing in stores rather than making it themselves.
Sewing skills may have declined, but what have we gained? A lot. Mass-produced clothing has raised our standard of living: stylish, affordable clothing can be had off the rack. For many, sewing remains a creative outlet, rather than a required task. For them, making clothing is no longer something you have to do, but something you want to do.
This post was adapted from a stop on our forthcoming “Hidden Stories of Manufacturing” tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the THF Connect app, written by Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.
For a museum professional who takes care of collection objects, it isn’t often that the opportunity to be crafty comes along. When it does, however, those random skills you never thought would be useful come in handy.
Case in point was a mannequin for our latest What We Wore display, featuring clothing and accessories related to sports, that needed a fresh hairstyle. Paper wigs are useful in creating a simple look, but can also give a “wow” factor that regular wigs cannot. For our cycling mannequin, we attempted the windswept, curly style of the early 20th century. What follows is the process it took to make this paper wig. May it inspire you to try crafting your own!
The useful tips and tricks detailed by the FIDM Museum & Galleries and the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences were invaluable resources to start the process. First, the search for suitable paper was a challenge, based on the recommendation of a 70 lb. watercolor paper. The art store had a wide selection of papers, but nothing that fit that description perfectly. We tried two samples: a 74 lb. smooth, waterproof synthetic paper made of polypropylene, and a textured 90 lb. cotton fiber watercolor paper. Both had their strengths and weaknesses, based on dyeability, strength, and size. Trial and error with curling the papers determined that the cotton fiber paper was best for this project because it was a bit more durable and gave us the option for coloring the paper.
Comparison of the synthetic paper on top and the cotton fiber watercolor paper on bottom.
The next step was deciding how to cut the paper into strips. We tried straight, long “hairs,” and a half-rainbow segment, but ultimately went with a wavy rainbow that created the perfect curly appearance.
Leave a ½-inch edge at the top of the hair sections, as this will be the “roots” that attach to the mannequin head.
As for curling the strands, here is where those random skills help! The suggestion was to wrap the paper strands around a #2 pencil or the end of a paintbrush to create the waves. However, we found that pulling the paper with scissors, a technique used for curling balloon ribbons, was most effective in getting the result we wanted.
We then took our fabric-covered foam head and decided where the hairline should start and in which direction to start attaching the strand sections. We used straight pins to keep the “hair” in place, but you could also use double-sided tape or glue, depending on the material of the mannequin head and its intended use afterwards. For us, since the hair is pinned in place, it is easily removable for the next exhibit.
A hat would be placed on top, so we pulled the sections of hair back around a ball of tissue paper for volume and extra support. These sections were taped, because the pins would slide out from such a thick amount of paper to secure. A circular piece of foam was placed on top of the head so that the hat could be secured in place with long pins
Ball of tissue inside the first layers of “hair.”
Attaching the final strands to the head.
The great thing about paper wigs is that you are limited only by your own creativity! Ribbons, feathers, and hairpins can all be added to create even more style. Depending on the paper used, colorful looks are also an option.
And voila! Here we have our cycling fashionista enjoying some time with her other athletic friends. Be sure to come to the museum and see our new What We Wore exhibit, featuring sports, on display all summer.
The cyclist, with her paper wig, in the What We Wore sports display, currently on exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
A new group of garments from The Henry Ford’s rich collection of clothing and accessories has made its debut in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in our What We Wore exhibit. With spring here and summer on the horizon, this time it’s a look at garments Americans wore as they delighted in the “sporting life” in their leisure time.
By the 20th century, recreational sports were an increasingly popular way to get exercise while having fun. Most Americans lived in cities rather than on farms—and lifestyles had become less physically active. Many people viewed sports as a necessity—an outlet from the pressures of modern life in an urban society.
The easy-to-ride safety bicycle turned cycling into a national obsession in the 1890s. At the peak in 1896, four million people cycled for exercise and pleasure. Most importantly, a bicycle meant the freedom to go where you pleased—around town or in the countryside.
Women found bicycling especially liberating—it offered far greater independence than they had previously experienced. Clothing for women became less restrictive while still offering modesty. Cycling apparel might include a tailored jacket, very wide trousers gathered above the ankles, stockings, and boots. Specially designed cycling suits with divided skirts also became popular.
Columbia Model 60 Women's Safety Bicycle, 1898. Gift of Mr. & Mrs. H. Benjamin Robison. / THF108117
This 1895 poster for bicycle road maps offered a pleasant route for cyclists north of New York City. / THF207603
Young men and women enjoy cycling and socializing in Waterville, Ohio about 1895. Gift of Thomas Russell. / THF201329
Baseball has long been a popular pastime—countless teams sprang up in communities all over America after the Civil War. During the early 20th century, as cities expanded, workplace teams also increased in popularity. Companies sponsored these teams to promote fitness and encourage “team spirit” among their employees. Company teams were also good “advertising.”
Harry B. Mosley of Detroit wore this uniform when he played for a team sponsored by the Lincoln Motor Company about 1920. Of course, uniforms weren’t essential—many players enjoyed the sport while dressed in their everyday clothing.
Baseball glove and bat, about 1920, used by Harry B. Mosley of Detroit, Michigan. / THF121995 and THF131216
The H.J. Heinz Company baseball team about 1907. Gift of H.J. Heinz Company. / THF292401
Residents of Inkster, Michigan, enjoy a game of baseball at a July 4th community celebration in 1940. Gift of Ford Motor Company. / THF147620
The game of golf boomed in the United States during the 1920s, flourishing on the outskirts of towns at hundreds of country clubs and public golf courses. By 1939, an estimated 8 million people—mostly the wealthy—played golf. It provided exercise—and for some, an opportunity to build professional or business networks.
When women golfed during the 1940s, they did not wear a specific kind of outfit. Often, women golfers would wear a skirt designed for active endeavors, paired with a blouse and pullover sweater. Catherine Roddis of Marshfield, Wisconsin, likely wore this sporty dress for golf, along with the stylish cape, donned once she had finished her game.
Dress and cape, 1940–1945, worn by Catherine Prindle Roddis, Marshfield, Wisconsin. Gift in Memory of Augusta Denton Roddis. /THF162615
Golf Clubs, about 1955. Gift of David & Barbara Shafer. / THF186328
Woman putts on a golf course near San Antonio, Texas, 1947. / THF621989
Clubhouse at the public Waukesha Golf Club on Moor Bath Links, Waukesha, Wisconsin, 1948–1956. Gift of Charles H. Brown and Patrick Pehoski. / THF622612
Swimming had become a popular sport by the 1920s—swimmers could be found at public beaches, public swimming pools, and resorts. In the 1950s, postwar economic prosperity brought even more opportunities for swimming. Americans could enjoy a dip in the growing number of pools found at public parks, motels, and in suburban backyards. Pool parties were popular—casual entertaining was in.
For men, cabana sets with matching swim trunks and sports shirts—for “pool, patio, or beach”—were stylish. The 1950s were a conservative era. The cover-up shirt maintained a modest appearance—while bright colors and patterns let men express their individuality.
Cabana set with short-sleeved shirt and swim trunks, 1955. Gift of American Textile History Museum. / THF186127
Advertisement for Catalina’s swimsuits—including cabana sets for men, 1955. / THF623631
In the years following World War II, the number of public and private swimming pools increased dramatically. Shown here in this June 1946 Life magazine advertisement, pool parties were popular. / THF622575
Swimming pool at Holiday Inn of Daytona Beach, Florida, 1961. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Moores. / THF104037
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.
Imagine attending a choral concert in a century-old church. Instead of monochromatic robes, the choristers emerge in bright, radiant color with bold geometric design. The colors of the robes are a musical key, made visual—yellow for the soprano, orange for the contralto, red for the tenor, and purple for the bass. As the choristers sing and sway, the robes come alive, a modern counterpoint to the traditional church interior.
Imagination aside, this is a scene familiar to those who have watched the Hope College Chapel Choir perform. Originally a creation of Charles and Ray Eames from the 1950s, faithful replicas of the robes continue to be used.
The Hope College Chapel Choir at Dimnent Chapel, circa 2001. Photo Courtesy of the Joint Archives of Holland.
Although husband-and-wife design team Charles and Ray Eames collaborated in nearly everything, it was Ray who showed an early and enduring interest in textiles and fashion design. The daughter of a theatre aficionado and manager, she attended the Bennett School for Girls, a two-year college in Millbrook, New York, earning a degree in Fashion Design in 1933. She completed fashion sketches throughout her life—even creating original paper dolls with custom clothing, complete with the tabs used to affix the clothing onto the doll! She designed a few textiles (one of which—“Crosspatch”—won an honorable mention in a 1946 Museum of Modern Art competition) and dedicated significant energy into the design and creation of her own clothing. The clothes she designed for herself and for Charles are quintessential Eames—functional yet beautiful, with playful delights to be found in the details.
D.J. De Pree, the founder and president of the Herman Miller Furniture Company (which produced Charles and Ray Eames’ furniture), was known for his religious fervor. Further, the company is headquartered in Zeeland, Michigan, a Dutch-American enclave with deep Protestant Christian roots. So, when an employee suggested the creation of a company-sponsored chorus in 1952 (something that might otherwise have been an unusual corporate activity), the De Prees granted it legitimacy, naming it the Herman Miller Mixed Chorus and inviting the chorus to perform at company and company-sponsored events. They soon required choral robes to outfit the company chorus and asked Charles and Ray Eames to design them.
Herman Miller Mixed Chorus Soprano and Contralto Vocalist Choir Robes, 1953-1960 / THF75585, THF75580
With Ray’s background, it is likely that she was primarily responsible for the design, although as always in collaboration with her husband. The robes are bold and colorful and make a statement, but they are also functional. Their symbolism is evidence of the Eames’ signature research-heavy process and attention to detail. The colors of the robes identify the vocal type (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) and each color’s hue (from light to dark) corresponds with the vocal range (from high to low). The horizontal black lines at the center of each robe reference the musical staff. Charles and Ray may have scoured the extensive Eames Office reference library to ensure symbolic depth and accuracy. Or, perhaps, this came from an ingrained knowledge of music. They enjoyed a variety of musical types, like jazz, folk, and classical, and music was a major component of the films they produced throughout their life, often collaborating with talented composers like Elmer Bernstein. The theatrical backdrop of Ray’s childhood, her interest in textiles and fashion, and the Eames’ interest in music coalesce in these robes.
Herman Miller Mixed Chorus Tenor and Bass Vocalist Choir Robes, 1953-1960 / THF75574, THF75569
The robes were designed at the Eames Office in Los Angeles, but it is unknown whether the robes were created there and shipped, finished, to Zeeland, or if the patterns and fabric were shipped and the robes were then sewn locally.
By 1960, the Herman Miller Mixed Chorus was disbanded, and Hugh De Pree, son of D.J. De Pree, donated the robes to the Hope College Chapel Choir in the neighboring city of Holland, Michigan, where the family had deep connections. The Hope College Chapel Choir was larger than the Herman Miller Mixed Chorus, so more robes had to be made. Doris Schrotenboer and Millie Grinwis, a mother and daughter team from Zeeland, made the extra. Millie Grinwis recalls that the fabric and patterns were shipped from the Eames Office to her mother’s home, where they were painstakingly put together.
After over 44 years in use, the original robes were retired in 2004. Unwilling, however, to part with the signature design, Hope College commissioned replicas, albeit in a slightly lighter fabric. The original robes were donated to several institutions. At The Henry Ford, these robes add an extra dimension to our design collections, as well as another way to better understand the many talents of Charles and Ray Eames.
The Hope College Chapel Choir recording at Milwaukee’s WTMJ-TV, circa 1965. / Photo Courtesy of the Joint Archives of Holland.
Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. She is also an alumnus of Hope College, where she was first delighted by these robes! Thank you to Geoffrey Reynolds at the Joint Archives of Holland for graciously sharing pictures of the Hope College Chapel Choir through the years.
Kalamazoo, Michigan, is known for its industry. For a relatively small midwestern city, it became a leader in the production of an impressive number of products, some more readily remembered today than others—including celery, paper, stoves, taxicabs, guitars, craft beer, and pharmaceuticals. At the turn of the 20th century, the Kalamazoo Corset Company gave the city more reasons to be noticed—for its high output of corsets, the advertising used to sell them, and for an historic labor strike, led primarily by women.
The Kalamazoo Corset Company began as the Featherbone Corset Company. The company’s name changed in 1894, a few years after the company was relocated 70+ miles from Three Oaks, Michigan, to the city of Kalamazoo. As the original name suggests, the company prided itself on its innovative use of turkey wing feathers—“featherbone”—which replaced the occasionally malodorous whalebone corsets (while these corsets were referred to as containing “whalebone,” it was actually whale baleen that was used, which is not bone).
While the company featured numerous lines of corsets, by 1908, they were focusing on advertising for their “American Beauty” line. These corsets were named to reflect a version of an idealized American woman—an “American Beauty.” Charles Dana Gibson had created his version of the feminine ideal of physical attractiveness, the “Gibson Girl,” during the 1890s—this “American Beauty” followed in her footsteps. The company’s use of “American Beauty” also likely referenced a deep crimson hybrid rose bred in Europe in 1875, which by the turn of the 20th century was popularized in America as the rather expensive American Beauty Rose. By associating their corset line with both the concept of the quintessential American girl and the coveted American Beauty Rose, they were sending a message to the consumer—"buy our corset and you too will take on these qualities!”
Promotional songs that advertised a product were becoming increasingly popular at the time. Since the end of the Civil War, Americans had been purchasing parlor pianos for their homes in great numbers—as many as 25,000 per year. The parlor piano became the center of most Americans’ musical experience. Music publishers, like those in the famous Tin Pan Alley of New York City, took note and sold sheet music aimed at these amateur musicians. The rise of music publishing led to a new mode of advertising for retailers and manufacturers. How better to promote your product than by creating a tune that consumers could play in their homes? It seems the Kalamazoo Corset Company agreed, hiring Harry H. Zickel and the Zickel Bros. to write three such songs to advertise the “American Beauty” line: the “American Beauty March and Two-Step” (1908), “My American Beauty Rose: Ballad” (1910), and “My American Beauty Girl” (1912).
Around the time these songs were being written, issues at the company began to come to light. The company was a major employer in the area, employing 1026 people, 835 of whom were women, in 1911. This made the company the largest employer of women in Kalamazoo. First in 1911, and then again in 1912, around 800 mostly female workers went on strike. They formed the Kalamazoo Corset Workers’ Union, Local 82 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), and protested unequal wages, unsanitary working conditions, and sexual harassment.
The strike gained national attention and the ILGWU headquarters in New York City sent well-known women’s rights advocates Josephine Casey and Pauline Newman to Kalamazoo to assist in the negotiations. The strike looked to New York as an example—the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and subsequent “Uprising of the 20,000” strike of 1909–1910 had sparked more uprisings, some far from New York City, as in Kalamazoo’s example.
The protesters received support from local unions, but the owner of the company, James Hatfield, was a prominent Kalamazoo businessman and was well-liked among his upper-class peers. Local women’s organizations did not come to the aid of the protestors. Even the local group of suffragettes did not openly support the strike, possibly due to class issues (the suffragettes were upper class, while the women protesting were working class) or because their focus was on getting a women’s suffrage amendment to the state’s constitution passed. The women of the Kalamazoo Corset Company faced an uphill battle to obtain even a semblance of equality in the workplace.
The strike ended on June 15, 1912, ultimately unsuccessful. While an agreement was reached which addressed many of Local 82’s demands, no measures were put in place to ensure adherence, and the company quickly lapsed in its promises. Within just a few years, James Hatfield left the company to begin another, and the company was renamed Grace Corset Company. Between the financial woes wrought by the strike and changing fashions, difficult days for the company were ahead.
The Kalamazoo Corset Company’s business was women—manufacturing garments for women, shaping idealized notions of women—but it was still unable to adequately value the many women it employed by creating an equitable and safe workplace. In the end, the inability of the company to recognize the value of the gender by which they made their business helped to ensure its downfall.
Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
Nude is Not a Color quilt, made by Hillary Goodwin, Rachael Dorr, and contributors from around the world, 2017. / THF185986
We often associate quilts with warmth and creativity. They can also make statements —serving as banners advocating a cause.
For nearly 200 years, American women have used needle and thread—once the only medium available to them—to express opinions, raise awareness, and advocate for social change. Women gathered in homes and in their communities to create quilts supporting causes like abolition, voting rights for women, and war relief.
This striking quilt, Nude is Not a Color, was created in 2017 by a worldwide community of women who gathered virtually to take a stand against racial bias. Learn more about the quilt below, and see it for yourself on exhibit as part of What We Wore in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, from March 11 through April 18, 2021.
The Quilt’s Story
In 2014, a clothing brand that sewist and blogger Bianca Springer of Pearland, Texas, had publicly supported introduced a new line of pale beige garments called Nude—a name long used by the fashion and cosmetic industries for products like hosiery and lipstick. Bianca took action. She contacted the company, thinking that the name was perhaps an oversight —reminding them that “nude” is a state of undress, not a color. And that the shade they chose as “nude” reflected only people of lighter skin tone—thus marginalizing people of color. Bianca’s perspective was repeatedly dismissed by company officials as overblown and irrelevant. She felt excluded and invisible.
Quiltmaker Hillary Goodwin of Auburn, California—also a fan of the company's clothing designs—wanted to stand in solidarity with her friend Bianca, and with other people of color. Together they decided to make a statement in fabric. Through Instagram, Hillary asked quilters to create a shirt block in whatever color fabric they felt best represented their skin tone, or that of their loved ones. Twenty-four quilters responded, from around the United States and around the world, including Canada, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Spain, the Netherlands, and Australia. Hillary then combined these shirt blocks with an image of Bianca wearing one of the “Nude” brand garments—creating this motif of a woman of color clothed in many shades of “nude.” Rachael Dorr of Bronxville, New York, then free-motion machine-quilted the completed quilt top.
More people became aware of the company’s bias and lent their voices to the issue, demanding change—and the brand eventually altered the name of the garment collection. A global community of women, willing to use their talent and voices to take a stand against racism, made a difference.
*Designed and constructed by Hillary Goodwin, Auburn California
*Design assistance by Robin King, Auburn, California
*Paper-pieced shirt pattern designed by Carolyn Friedlander, Lake Wales, Florida
*Shirt blocks contributed by:
Carmen Alonso, Oviedo, Spain
Agnes Ang, Thousand Oaks, California
Berene Campbell, North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Kirsty Cleverly, Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia
Silvana Pereira Coutinho, Brazil
Anne Eriksson, Egmond aan den Hoef, The Netherlands
Hillary Goodwin, Auburn, California
Rebecca Green, United Kingdom
Lynn Carson Harris, Chelsea, Michigan
Phoebe Adair Harris, Chelsea, Michigan
Krista Hennebury, North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Sandra Johnson, Orange, California
Chawne Kimber, Easton, Pennsylvania
Tamara King, Portland, Oregon
Alexandra Ledgerwood, Kansas City, Missouri
Maite Macias, Oviedo, Spain
Nicole Neblett, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Krishma Patel, Carteret, New Jersey
Amy Vaughn Ready, Billings, Montana
Sonia Sanchez, Oviedo, Spain
Rachel Singh, Seattle, Washington
Michele Spirko, Amherst, Massachusetts
Bianca Springer, Pearland, Texas
Jess Ziegler, Adel, Iowa
*Free-motion machine quilted by Rachael Dorr, Bronxville, New York
The makers each had a unique story to tell—below are some of their insights.
“Hearing of this encounter was an eye opener for me as a white woman. How would I feel if I had to explain to my daughter that her skin tone was not the “standard”? How many other ways does my white privilege benefit me without me acknowledging it? How could I help stand in solidarity with my friend?” —Hillary Goodwin, Auburn, California
“The … collection featured a non-diverse group of models wearing beige fabrics classified as "nude.” My "nude" skin is not beige and the use of the term made it clear they did not have me in mind… the color … only fits the white majority, signals white supremacy and marginalizes people of color… With the conceptualization of the quilt, the issue went from commiseration and emotional processing of systemic and overt racism, to a broader statement of activism.” —Bianca Springer, Pearland, Texas
“Although I considered myself a non-racist white person, I am not, of course, and I had never really given any thought to what it felt like to live life in a skin color that was not white. I credit my participation in the making of this quilt as the beginning of my slow and never-ending quest to be an anti-racist ally and to use the unearned privilege afforded me solely by my skin color to help bring some long overdue justice to this country.” —Tamara King, Portland, Oregon
"We are a group of three friends, we met through sewing… We live in Asturias, a small region in the north of Spain, that has traditionally been a land of emigrants … concepts such as "white privilege,” "black lives matter" … "segregation" ... sound very foreign to us… Choosing the fabrics for our "shirts" was … a surprise. How different we all are! And then seeing all the "shirts" … Mind blowing!” —Sonia Sanchez (along with friends Carment Alonso and Maite Macias), Oviedo, Spain
“I hope that the message of the quilt reaches a lot of people and, at least, has them thinking.” —Kirsty Cleverly, Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia
“I grew up in the South at a time when bare legs were scandalous and pantyhose were expected on any good young lady. The color options were black, suntan, and nude. It never quite made sense why nude was so white and why my own predominant skin tone was equated to someone's suntan. Why would white skin be the default in such a creative industry as fashion? Unfortunately the industry still adheres to these color naming schemes, which only serve to make sure I know that I am Other in this society.” —Chawne Kimber, Easton, Pennsylvania
“My daughter, Phoebe, who was 10 at the time, often spent time in my sewing room with me and loved to help choose fabrics for my projects. I had Phoebe help choose a fabric that matched my skin tone. She noticed that HER skin matched a different color and wanted to contribute a block too. I loved that teachable moment we had in the sewing room… This moment contributed to her journey of looking at how people are the same, how people are different, representation, and fighting for social justice as she is now doing in her teens.” —Lynn Carson Harris, Chelsea, Michigan
“I am familiar with the disappointment when undergarments, hosiery, foundation creams made in cream/pink aka “nude" never quite match my more yellow/olive skin tone. Working with quilting cotton solids in skin tones that ranged from rich chocolate to yellow undertones was liberating as it helped me be more comfortable challenging the current paragon for skin tone.” —Agnes Ang, Thousand Oaks, California
“I was born into a white, middle-class family in South Africa during the sixties. When you live in a life where everyone looks and lives like you do, you come to believe that this is normal life, however of course, this is far from the truth. Despite my family being liberal, I was blind as to the impact that my privilege had had on the black communities around us… I have become more aware of this burden of my privilege on others… The simple awareness of how our world is designed for some but not all, should inspire us to make equitable changes to provide dignity for all. Inclusivity and raising each other up makes us a strong human race.” —Berene Campbell, North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
“As an Asian Indian couple, a job move for my husband brought us to USA in 2001. Within a short time the unfortunate events of 9/11 occurred. Watching the morning news live, I saw the first tower being struck and a few minutes later the second! All telephone systems were down and I was not able to contact my husband… Fearing the worst possible harm to my husband, I panicked! I knocked on my neighbor’s door. We had shared the elevator a few times. All I wanted to know from her was, how far or near my husband’s workplace would be to the Twin Towers. She opened the door, took one look at me and yelled into my face, ‘Go back to wherever you came from, you [n-word]!’” —Krishma Patel, Carteret, New Jersey
“As a new grad and a South Asian female when I first went to work in investment banking I needed stockings to go with my business attire. I would always find loads of "Nude" colored stockings but they never kind of matched my skin color. A few stores would only carry that color and I had to go find specific stores that sold the ones matched my complexion.” —Rachel Singh, Seattle, Washington
“People like me with brown skin are thus ignored and rendered invisible. And yet, we exist and we matter. I contributed to this quilt to join with others who also believe that nude is not a color. I contributed two shirts: one shirt is the color of honey and the other cocoa brown. These shirts represent each of my brown-skinned daughters. May they never feel invisible. May they always know that their color of nude is just as worthy and beautiful.” —Nicole Neblett, Ann Arbor, Michigan
“…people of color face a world frequently viewed only through the white lens, while white people have blinders on to that experience… I’m proud to be part of this project and hope it inspires white viewers to open their hearts and minds to the anti-racism work we must continue to do for the sake of all humanity.” —Michele Spirko, Amherst, Massachusetts
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. All quilt contributor images from the collections of The Henry Ford.