Monday, August 11, 2014

Women & The Great War at KSFM

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The Great War: Women and Fashion in a World at War (1912-1922) exhibit at the Kent State Fashion Museum opened July 24, 2014 and runs until July 5, 2015 - I encourage you to visit (admission is only $5). This era in American history, the tale-end of the Progressive Era and the beginning of the American Jazz Age, is my expertise in fashion and social history. I applaud Sarah Hume, curator to the museum, and her staff for putting together a beautiful and informative exhibit.

"For Every Fighter, A Woman Worker" (1918)
One of the more intriguing displays of The Great War are the propaganda posters on loan to Kent State from the University of Minnesota. These posters targeted women and the social and political issues which concerned them specifically during WWI. In this era of American history, great political and social changes swept across the nation and women were very often the featured subjects of propaganda campaigns and their promulgation, including the eugenics and hygiene movements, trust (monopoly) busting, the social work movement (see Jane Addams and Hull House), child labor laws, and woman's suffrage. In the case of The Great War, these posters helped to shape women's perceptions of the war and impart their greater purpose, one which extended beyond the reaches of the domestic sphere and into the employment of their nation - a call to duty to protect the integrity of their homes and to preserve the American way of life. These posters are certainly more than just pretty prints and a romantic glimpse into the American past, but historical gems that convey some aspect of the social, political, and cultural values of a people from a by-gone era. The symbolism and underlying messages can be quite extraordinary, deceptive, and sometimes misunderstood.

For example, I found that the most interesting print at The Great War exhibit was "Columbia Calls". It's not merely an enlistment poster for the United States Army, but its symbolism suggests a meaning far more complex than at first glance. The artist and poet for this poster was Frances Adams Halsted and she submitted it to the War Department the moment  the United States entered WWI in 1917. More than one million copies of this print was sold, including calenders and post cards, and profits were relegated by the US government to fund orphanages for American war children. But beyond Halsted's artistic merit and the War Department's financial benevolence toward parentless children is a message within the poster which seems to denote more than just the health and strength of a nation. Pictured we see the creamy-skinned and robust female figure of Lady Columbia wielding a sword (thought to be Excalibur). Unlike Lady Liberty, who summoned the poor, the weak, and the hungry, Columbia was the embodiment of civilized progression and the symbolism of Europa, she was American brawn personified. Discretely placed in her company and just below Old Glory (between the title and body of the poem, on the bottom right side of the poster) is a small black swastika. Understanding the symbolism behind Lady Columbia's image and the modern Western connotation of the swastika, it is easy to conclude that the principle message behind the poster's imagery is one of racial superiority and antisemitism. However, 1917 is a little too early in Western history for the swastika to take on its most infamous ascription from the Nazi Party. In this case, it is more likely that Halsted used it as a symbol for Victory and a means by which to heighten American patriotism. Until the mid-1920s, the swastika was still viewed culturally (both in America and Europe) as a mystical Hindi or Kabbalistic symbol for fortune and light. 

Now, on to the Pretties!


Fashion & The Great War:

~Cotton dress, c. 1915 (American)~

~Evening dress, c. 1917 (American)~

~Cotton summer dresses, c. 1917-1920 (American)~

~Wedding gowns, c-1915-1916 (American)~

~Rust damask suit and striped cotton ensemble, c. 1912-1914 (American)~

~A decade of corsets, c. 1912-1922~

~Hat made from green silk, feathers, and ribbon, c. 1910 (American)~

~Black leather pumps, c. 1914 (American)~

~Boots made from wool canvas and leather, c. 1910 (American)~

~US Army infantry uniform, c. 1917 (American)~

~US Navy Female Yeoman's Uniform, c. 1918 (American)~

~Nurse's (left) and maid's (right) uniforms, c. 1910 (American)~

~Lady's gym (left) and basketball (right) uniforms, c. 1910~

~Men's cotton canvas gym shoes, c. 1910 (American)~

To view more from my photographs of The Great War exhibit at Kent State, please visit my Pinterest page. Blessings and happy sewing!

Source Notes:
"'Columbia Calls' is Nation's Poster." New York Times (July 3, 1917).
"The New Columbia." Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine 51:1 (July 1917), 2.