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Brown quilt with quilted text "NUDE IS NOT A COLOR" and image of brown-skinned woman in pale dress covered with smaller images of shirts in many shades 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.

Quilt Contributors

 

*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

 

Maker Stories

 

The makers each had a unique story to tell—below are some of their insights.

Light-skinned blonde woman in medical coat with stethoscope around neck stands in front of sign reading "EMERGENCY"
“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

Dark-skinned woman with natural hair, glasses, and wearing a blue print shirt holds a fist to her chin and smiles
“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

Light-skinned woman with brown hair
“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

Three hands of varying skin tones
"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

Light-skinned woman with dark blonde hair wearing a blue shirt
“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

Medium-dark-skinned woman wearing print top next to a trellis with large-leafed ivy
“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

Light-skinned woman with blonde hair and glasses, wearing blue top, in front of a colorful backdrop
Young woman with blonde hair and gray sleeveless top stands among flowers with grass and trees behind her
“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

Woman with medium-light skin and dark hair in a blue shirt
“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

Light-skinned woman with blonde hair and glasses, wearing black sweater with small red hearts, in front of a red door
“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

Medium-skinned woman with dark hair in front of white curtain with dark trim
“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

Medium-skinned woman in black top
“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

Medium-dark-skinned woman wearing pink top with bobbed curly black hair in front of a colorful backdrop
“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

Medium-light-skinned woman with brown hair in blue shirt and black blazer
“…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.

fashion, African American history, art, by Jeanine Head Miller, women's history, making, quilts, What We Wore, Henry Ford Museum

Glass case with four dress forms, each containing a garment, labels in front and additional artifacts on a low table

Another group of garments from The Henry Ford’s rich collection of clothing and accessories makes its debut in “What We Wore” in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.

Who knew that a company that made toilet tissue and paper towels would start a fashion sensation?

In April 1966, the Scott Paper Company launched a promotion for its new line of colorful paper products. Along with two proofs of purchase and $1.25 for shipping, customers could redeem a coupon for a paper dress, choosing from a red paisley bandana pattern or a black-and-white op art print.

The media took immediate notice. So did the public. Scott’s “Paper Caper” dresses became a surprise hit. Soon fashion enthusiasts were wearing not only Scott’s dresses, but paper apparel created by other manufacturers and designers who quickly joined in the trend.

The 1960s was an era of exploration and pushing boundaries. It was the space age--people envisioned an exciting future where everything was conveniently automated. New materials and disposability were in.

Paper apparel promised convenience--you could simply discard it after one wearing. Altering the hemline was a snap--all it took was a pair of scissors and a steady hand. A tear? You could do a quick repair with sticky tape.

The A-line shape and trendy prints of the paper dress fit perfectly with the youthful “Mod” look and aesthetic sensibilities of the 1960s. You could be up-to-the-minute at little cost--clothing could be quickly and cheaply replaced as trends shifted. There was a paper dress for every budget--from those on the shelves of mass-market retailer J.C. Penney to the chic creations carried by Manhattan boutiques.

People bought over a million paper garments between 1966 and 1968. Some envisioned throwaway clothing as the wave of the future. Yet, by early 1968, the craze was beginning to cool. Paper clothing was not really practical or comfortable for everyday use. And the hippie movement--with its back-to-nature values and strong anti-pollution message--was changing public opinion. What had seemed hip and modern now seemed frivolous and wasteful.

A bit of novelty in an era of experimentation, the paper dress fad was fun while it lasted.

The Dress That Launched a Fashion Craze


Red sleeveless shift dress with yellow paisley pattern
Label with small image of woman in black dress and text
Scott Company’s “Paper Caper” Dress and label, 1966. / THF185279, THF146282

When the Scott Paper Company created the first paper dress in 1966, they intended it as a promotional gimmick to help sell their products. But their “Paper Caper” dresses--a paisley bandana design or an Op art print--swiftly and unexpectedly caught on with the public. The publicity the dresses brought Scott far exceeded the company’s expectations. By the end of the year they received nearly a half million orders for dresses they sold at near cost.

The company made little money from sales of the dresses--but that wasn’t the point. Inadvertent fashion innovators, company executives had no intention of continuing the paper dress venture in 1967, leaving the market to eager entrepreneurs.

Woman in black-and-white geometric-patterned dress in front of what appears to be a papier mâché sculpture of a person in a landscape
Scott’s “Paper Caper” black and white Op art dress (geometric abstract art that uses optical illusion) appeared in Life Magazine in April 1966. / THF610489

“Waste Basket Boutique”


Sleeveless jumpsuit in green, red, and orange floral pattern with ties at the shoulders
Paper Jumpsuit by Waste Basket Boutique by Mars of Asheville, 1966-1968. / THF185294 (Gift of the American Textile History Museum. Given to ATHM by Cathy Weller.)

The Scott company’s success started a trend for disposable fashion--so other companies quickly jumped in. Mars of Asheville, a hosiery company, launched a paper fashion line in June 1966 under the label, Waste Basket Boutique. They sold colorful printed-paper dresses and other garments for adults and children in a variety of strap, neckline and sleeve styles, as well as “space age” foil paper clothing. In September, Mars debuted plain white dresses that came with watercolor paint sets for “doing your own thing.” Pop artist Andy Warhol painted one to promote the new line.

Mars of Asheville became the leading manufacturer of disposable fashion, producing over 80,000 garments each week at its height.

Three women pose in floor-length boldly geometrically patterned sleeveless dresses; styles and colors vary; also contains text
Designers embraced the trend, creating unique disposable couture for a wealthier crowd. Tzaims Luksus designed these hand-painted $1000 balls gowns for an October 1966 fundraiser at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. Life Magazine, November 1966. / THF610492

Walking Ads/Walking Art


Sleeveless dress with a pattern of red-and-white Campbell’s soup cans
Campbell’s “Souper” Dress, 1967. / THF185289 (Given in Memory of Thelma D. Nykanen)

The advertising potential of these wearable “billboards” was huge. With coupons clipped from magazines, women could buy dresses from a variety of companies, including Green Giant vegetables, Butterfinger candy bars, and Breck hair care products. While some companies offered motifs that reflected their products, others followed fashion with flower power, paisley, or geometric designs.

In Spring 1967, the Campbell Soup Company produced what became the most famous paper garment of the era--this dress with its repeating soup can image. The dress not only advertised Campbell’s products--it also cleverly referenced Pop artist Andy Warhol’s iconic early 1960s depictions of the Campbell’s soup can that elevated this ordinary object to the status of art.

Two images of the same man (in a suit) and woman (in two different dresses); in the first, the woman appears pregnant; in the second, the man holds a baby; also contains text and a cutout coupon at the bottom
In 1968, the Mennen Company, makers of Baby Magic infant care products, offered women stylish paper maternity and party dresses “fashion-approved” by designer Oleg Cassini. / THF146023

Disposable Dresses Go Political


White dress with a large stylistic eagle in blue, red, and white stars, with text “Romney for President” forming part of the body
George Romney presidential primary campaign dress, 1968 / THF185284

Bumper stickers, buttons, and brochures--those were the standard things that political campaigns were made of in the 1960s. Beyond “standards,” campaigns also latch onto things that are hot at the time—and during the 1968 presidential campaign, that meant paper dresses. Democratic candidate Robert Kennedy and Republicans Richard Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller, and George Romney all had versions.

This George Romney campaign dress may have been “hip,” but it didn’t do the trick for him--Romney’s bid for the nomination was unsuccessful. Nelson Rockefeller’s too.

Blue bumper sticker with white text “ROMNEY”
Two circular blue buttons with wide white band containing blue text “ROMNEY” across center
George Romney bumper sticker and campaign buttons, 1968. / THF146376, THF8545 (Buttons gift of Mr. & Mrs. Charles W. Kurth II)

When You Care Enough to WEAR the Very Best


Hot pink package with drawing of woman with short dark hair, wearing dress with pattern of holly leaves and berries; also contains text
Green package with drawing of woman with pink hair, wearing multicolored floral dress; also contains text
Hallmark Cards, Inc. paper party dresses, “Flower Fantasy” and “Holly,” 1967. / THF185309 (Gift of the American Textile History Museum. Given to ATHM by Diane K. Sanborn), THF185307 (Gift of the American Textile History Museum. Given to ATHM by Jane Crutchfield)

In the spring of 1967, the Hallmark company embraced the disposable clothing trend, marketing a complete party kit that included a printed A-line shift and matching cups, plates, placemats, napkins, and invitations. While matched sets of disposable tableware had been around for decades, a matching paper dress was a new idea.


In this era of informal entertaining, festive paper tableware (and paper fashion) made hosting parties more convenient and cleanup easier. After guests left, the hostess could simply toss everything into the trash--rather than into the dishwasher and washing machine.

Seated woman wearing floral dress with matching floral tableware, decorative honeycomb paper flower and wrapped gift nearby
With Hallmark products, a hostess could have every element of her party perfectly matched--including her “swinging new paper party dress,” 1967. / THF146021


Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.

What We Wore, popular culture, home life, Henry Ford Museum, fashion, by Jeanine Head Miller, advertising

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A new group of garments from The Henry Ford’s rich collection of clothing and accessories makes its debut in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in our What We Wore exhibit, this time examining how fashion trends can highlight, or manipulate, the human form.

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Dress and Pelerine, 1830-1835

(Purchased with funds from the Eleanor B. Safford Memorial Textile Fund)


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What makes these sleeves puffy?
A stiffened underlining--pleated muslin fabric--helps support the sleeves. Sometimes a “sleeve plumper” was used--down-filled pads that tied on at the shoulder under the dress.

The wide silhouette created by these “leg-of-mutton” sleeves and matching pelerine (small cape that covers the shoulders) not only drew attention to the wearer’s arms, but also emphasized the smallness of her waist!

Who wore this dress?
During the 1830s? We don’t know. Later, Tasha Tudor (1915-2008), author and illustrator of children’s literature, owned the dress.

Tudor admired the objects and rural lifestyle of the early 19th century. She lived in a secluded New England farmhouse with no plumbing or electricity, surrounded by an orchard, rambling garden, and lively farm animals. Tasha Tudor also collected antique clothing--and wore it.

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Dress, 1884-1885
(
Gift of Ruth W. Crouse)

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What supported the elaborately draped fabric at the back of this dress?
A bustle--a support of parallel horizontal slats made of wood or steel bent in a half circle. The bustle attached to the body around the waist. A tightly laced corset helped create her extremely small waist.

But how did she sit down? The slats would all collapse together as she sat, then spring back in place when she stood up--maintaining her fashionable silhouette.Between the fabric of the dress and the bustle, garments of this period could be quite heavy to wear!

Who wore this dress?
Mary Stevens (1861-1910), the daughter of wealthy capitalist. The Stevens family lived on Woodward Avenue in Detroit, a street lined with the homes of prosperous Detroiters.

Mary Stevens had a privileged lifestyle. She had the money to purchase finely made fashionable clothing. And led a social life that gave her opportunities to wear it. A few days before Christmas 1884, Mary’s mother gave an elegant reception at the Stevens home--complete with elaborate floral decorations, refreshments, and a full orchestra. Could this be the dress that Mary wore that afternoon?

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Dress, 1927-1929
(Gift of Audrey K. Wilder)

Artboard 4@150x-80
What undergarment helped achieve this slender, youthful silhouette?
A straight-line, one-piece garment called a corselette. It de-emphasized the bust and smoothed the natural curves of the body--emphasizing the straight, unbroken line of that era’s “boyish” silhouette.

The movement of the uneven hemline, while walking or dancing, would subtly call attention to the wearer’s legs.

Who wore this dress?
Audrey K. Wilder (1896-1979) likely owned this dress.  Audrey attended college--quite unusual for women of her time. She graduated from Albion College, then earned a master’s degree from Columbia University in 1921.

In the late 1920s, Audrey Wilder was appointed Dean of Women at Ohio Northern University. One of her first projects was the creation of the first social hall for women on campus--a place where female students could hold teas, receptions, musicals, and dinners. Those who knew her described Audrey as a “dynamic dean” and a woman “of exquisite grooming.”

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Cocktail Dress by Christian Dior, 1952
(Gift of Mrs. Harvey Firestone, Jr.)

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What undergarment helped create the “hourglass” silhouette of the 1950s?
Christian Dior’s “New Look”--with its close-fitting hourglass silhouette--dominated the 1950s. This look emphasized a tiny waistline and feminine curves. Longline bras helped slim the waistline and create a smooth line under garments.

This dress, Dior’s “Sonnet” design, also accentuated the waist through the angled side bodice seams, bows at the waist, and rounded skirt.

Who wore this dress?
This dress was custom-made for Elizabeth Parke Firestone (1897-1990), wife of tire magnate Harvey S. Firestone, Jr. Elizabeth felt it her duty to represent her husband, family, and the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company with dignity and grace. She was always flawlessly dressed--whether for informal camping trips, world travel, business functions, or society parties.

Elizabeth had a fine eye for fashion and favored New York and Parisian designers, including Christian Dior. These designers created garments to her specifications, including perfect fit, style, color, fabric, and construction. During the 1950s the New York Dress Institute named Elizabeth one of the "Best Dressed Women in the World.”

Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.

women's history, fashion, Henry Ford Museum, by Jeanine Head Miller, What We Wore

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As we continue to celebrate our first year of What We Wore--our new collections platform in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation--a new group of garments from The Henry Ford’s rich collection of clothing and accessories makes its debut.

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This season it’s all about kids.

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Sailor Suit, about 1925
Sailor suits were popular from the 1870s into the 1930s—with short or long pants for boys and skirts for girls. These nautically-themed outfits were usually made of sturdy washable fabrics and, though stylish, allowed kids a bit more freedom of movement.

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Jumper and Blouse, 1958–1960
(Gift of Mary Sherman)
In the 1950s, girls still wore dresses or skirts much of the time—for formal occasions and for school. Pants were play clothes—what girls wore after school to run around the yard or play indoors.

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"Wrecker" Coordinating Shirt and Pants, 1978
(Gift of Diana and John Mio)
Designs with kid appeal often appear on children’s casual clothing— images like cars and trucks, princesses, dinosaurs, animals, butterflies, and monsters.

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Blouse and Pant Outfit, about 1935
This girl’s casual outfit was inspired by adult fashion—beach pajamas, informal resort wear sporting wide pantlegs. Cheerful, pastel prints were popular during the Depression era.

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Leisure Suit, 1977
(Gift of Diana and John Mio)
The casual and versatile leisure suit reached the height of popularity with adult men in 1977, when John Travolta wore a white version to the disco in the movie Saturday Night Fever.  Even kids donned this ultimate—and short-lived—1970s fashion trend.

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Dress, about 1920
(Gift in Memory of Augusta Denton Roddis)
In the 1920s, simple dresses were preferred for younger girls. Linen fabric and pale colors were popular for summer wear. The understated details on this dress are embroidered, crocheted and tatted—the children’s mother was a skilled needlewoman.

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The Building Blocks of Childhood

Children love to build things--whether they create imaginary worlds or smaller versions of the real one.  Construction toys are quite literally and figuratively “the building blocks of childhood.”  Playing with them builds physical and intellectual skills--and encourages creativity.  Toy bricks, logs, and girders are the stuff of playtime joy!

Entrepreneurs have introduced innovative construction toys that have delighted new generations of children.  Which is your favorite? For the LEGO fans, Towers of Tomorrow with LEGO® Bricks, a first-of-its-kind, limited-engagement exhibition, is rising up in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation October 12 through January 5, 2020.

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Erector Set No. 1, about 1915

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Junior Tinkertoy for Beginners Set, 1937-1946

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American Plastic Bricks, about 1955 (
Gift of Miriam R. Epstein)

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Lincoln Logs, about 1960 (
Gift of Steven K. Hamp)

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Lego Building Set, 1976-1983

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Dream Builders Super Blocks Building Set, 1991-1992

toys, Henry Ford Museum, by Jeanine Head Miller, fashion, What We Wore

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As we were excited to announce last December, What We Wore offers us the opportunity to continually display objects from The Henry Ford’s rich collection of clothing and accessories. What’s on exhibit currently in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation? Wedding dresses, highlighting the fact that the “traditional” white wedding dress wasn’t always traditional...

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For much of American history, brides simply wore the best dress they had. Most wedding celebrations were at-home, informal events. The formal white wedding dress—and the more elaborate celebration to go along with it—is a relatively new concept.

Queen Victoria’s choice of a white dress for her 1840 wedding to Prince Albert inspired the fashion. Over the next century, the custom would gradually spread from the very wealthy to those of more modest means. By the 1950s, the formal white wedding with all the trimmings had become a widespread tradition.

Whether simple or elaborate, classic or trendy—for most brides, the white wedding gown has staying power. Some brides prefer a practical choice for their bridal attire—others search for the perfect, “fairy princess” dress.

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Whatever the choice of wedding apparel, it reflects the bride’s values and taste.

what we wore1
Mollie Herrington – Married July 1, 1886

Mollie Herrington wed Reverend William Canfield on a summer evening in the mid-1880s. Like most brides, this 26-year-old schoolteacher was married at her family’s home in a dress that was not white. Brides wore their best dress—whether newly made or already owned—and continued to wear it after the wedding. Few could afford to invest in a white dress meant to be worn only once. Mollie’s stylish dress was probably made for her wedding by a local dressmaker.

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Gift of American Textile History Museum, donated to ATHM by Shirley Parish.

Shirley Powell – Married Oct. 18, 1969

Shirley Powell was married in her great-aunt Mollie’s wedding dress—a choice both practical and sentimental. This 23-year-old bride loved the cherished family heirloom—and didn’t think she would find anything more finely made or beautiful at a price she was willing to pay. Having a traditional wedding wasn’t all that important to Shirley and David, but they realized the celebration would be as much about family bonds as about them.

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Wedding Party at the Marriage of Cecelia Wall and Anthony Denisevich, 1935. THF274683

Cecilia Wall – Married Oct. 26, 1935

For her morning wedding, 22-year-old Cecelia Wall walked down the aisle in an ivory silk velvet dress. Afterwards, the bridal party and immediate family enjoyed a wedding breakfast at her parents’ home and, in the evening, a reception at the home of the groom’s parents. The Great Depression required some brides to plan simpler weddings than they might have wished. Cecelia was among the fortunate brides who could afford a formal wedding gown.

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Rose Pecchia at Her Wedding in 1968. THF274680

Rose Pecchia – Married March 29, 1968

Rose Pecchia was a practical woman who wanted a simple wedding. She and her husband-to-be chose a wedding date—just two weeks away. A secretary at a downtown Detroit television station, 28-year-old Rose ran out on her lunch hour to nearby Hudson’s department store. She then headed for the racks of cocktail dresses. Rose knew it as soon as she saw it—the perfect dress! It was minimal and stylish—in the 1960s, shorter skirts were “in.” A friend’s mother made the simple headpiece.

Recently, Rose had the chance to see her wedding dress on exhibit. Take a look at her reaction below.

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What We Wore, fashion

What We Wore


What We Wore, a new collections platform in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, offers a much-anticipated opportunity to continually display objects from The Henry Ford’s rich collection of clothing and accessories.   

What’s a collections platform? It’s a small, specialized display of objects from our collection.  This new collections platform, the fourth to be installed in the museum, follows those of coverlets, telephones, and violins. 

The theme of the first group of garments displayed is “Home Front Heroes: Women in World War II”--chosen to complement the “Enduing Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt, & the Four Freedoms” exhibit in The Gallery by General Motors. This clothing represents the stories of millions of American women who worked in defense industries, trained to be pilots, volunteered for the Red Cross, or provided a connection to civilian life for servicemen through USO-sponsored activities during World War II.  

What We Wore


What We Wore is located behind the Anderson Theater, across from Mathematica. Every four months, visitors to the museum will enjoy a look at yet another group of interesting garments and their stories from The Henry Ford’s collection.  

Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.

What We Wore, Henry Ford Museum, by Jeanine Head Miller, fashion