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More Than An Outfit

Posted on September 9th, 2019 by

A blog post by Director of Collections and Exhibits Joanna Church. To read more posts by Joanna click HERE.


As we wind down our Fashion Statement and Stitching History From the Holocaust exhibits (both closing this coming Sunday, September 15!), it occurred to me that while I wrote many (many) words about the clothing and photographs on display in Fashion, both in the show and for the online extras, I never actually pulled together a blog post. Let’s remedy that!

Contemporary looks at the style choices and expression of artists like Billie Eilish and Lizzo and recent retrospective studies of the fashion of icons such as Ella Fitzgerald and Elton John, help to remind us that, celebrities or not, our clothes make a statement – both intentional and unintentional.  What we choose to wear – to work, to school, to shul, to the grocery store, walking the dog – makes an impression on those around us; sometimes it’s the impression we’re hoping to make, sometimes not. That stylish outfit, expensive coat, or band t-shirt says “you’re one of us” to some people, but says “what were you thinking?” to others.  In an ideal world, how an outfit makes YOU feel would be paramount – but after all, people are judgey… and that outfit may end up in a museum someday, and there’ll be a whole new set of judgements and appraisals made. One of my goals in Fashion Statement was to encourage visitors to think critically, but also empathetically, about the choices made by others and themselves: what stories do our clothes tell the world?

As curator, I started with a ridiculously long list of artifacts I wanted to include and stories I wanted to tell… but in the end, only certain things made the final cut. I’m happy to say that through all the revisions and refinements, I managed to retain two pieces that I wanted to include from the very beginning, and to arrange them in a way that lets them have a bit of a conversation with each other.  These two are wonderful in and of themselves, but also tell an interesting story together: the blue skirt (third from right in the photo above) and the black sequined dress (far left).

Gown, circa 1905. Silk georgette and crepe embellished with beads and sequins. Gift of Judith Davidson Greenfeld and Margery Greenfeld Morgan. JMM 2008.130.1a-b.

Ida (Chaya) Leikseich Berman (1877-1954) emigrated from Russia with her husband and newborn daughter, landing in Baltimore on July 5, 1900. In 1910 the family – three more children were born in the US – lived on Eden Street, while husband Michael found work as a “street peddler.” By 1920 they had managed to save enough to purchase a building at 125 N. Front Street (near the old Shot Tower, just north of Jonestown), where they ran a second-hand shop. They attended Shomrei Mishmeres, an Orthodox congregation, in the old Lloyd Street Synagogue.

Ida acquired this Edwardian “occasion” gown, made of silk georgette and crepe and embellished with beads and sequins, from an unknown seamstress; it’s possible that she made it herself, though there were plenty of sources for both materials and talent in East Baltimore at the time. It’s well-made, with a complicated top; hand-beading (the sequins may have been pre-strung); a lined and belted top, and a double, flounced, trained skirt. The S-bend silhouette that this dress was designed for was achieved through a blousy top, trained skirt, and (almost certainly) judicious corsetry.

This vintage ad, circa 1905, shows the newly “correct” fashionable posture for women, achieved with the help of a straight-front or “S-bend” corset.

This look was extremely fashionable for the middle of this decade, which could show us that Ida was up to date… though it is possible that the dress itself dates from later in the decade, and she was in fact a few years behind the fashions. Without knowing the particular ‘occasion’ for which it was worn, it’s hard to know if the maker and wearer were of-the-moment, or a little behind the times.

Sequined evening gown, by Jacques Doucet, ca. 1902, from the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The exuberant sequins on the bodice look modern, but other examples of sequined gowns from this era can be found. Nonetheless, this isn’t necessarily a look or style that we might, today, expect to see on an Orthodox woman; but perhaps Ida – like many of her fellow recent immigrants – enjoyed the newly-available opportunity to embrace the highs of American fashion.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries there was a certain amount of head-shaking and even mockery (including from members of the group themselves, like novelist Anzia Yezierska) of recent immigrants ‘trying too hard’ to emulate the upper classes, or simply being too ignorant to understand what established, mainstream Americans deemed “good taste;” it was feared they were doing themselves a disservice, locking themselves into greenhorn or pitiable status. But today some scholars are hoping to return some agency to these people by showing that many immigrants knew exactly what they were doing when they chose elaborately decorated, expensive, or ‘flashy’ clothing, whether because they were purposefully enjoying a newly-available abundance, indulging in personal tastes unreachable in their previous circumstances, or deliberately setting themselves apart as a sub-group, akin to more recent subculture attire like zoot suits, or punk gear.

Skirt, 1900-1905. Flannel with velvet trim. Gift of Hyman Siegel and Helene Siegel Sherman. JMM 1985.132.1.

Rebecca Harris Siegel (1869-1934) brought this skirt with her when she, her husband Harry, and at least three small children emigrated to Baltimore from Russia in 1901.  They settled in East Baltimore, where census records show that her husband worked in local shops, including a retail confectioner’s in 1910, and as a foreman in an overall factory in 1920. The family stayed in East Baltimore until the early 1930s, when Rebecca, now widowed, moved to lower Park Heights.

Though practical, this flannel skirt is not without a certain amount of style. The material and construction are good quality, and it features three decorative bands of a contrasting velvet trim along the bottom hem. The family thinks this skirt may have been what she was wearing when her ship docked in Baltimore. Without her own testimony, we don’t know if that’s the case – whether she told this to her children, or if it became a story they told themselves over time.

“Recently arrived persons at Ellis Island, NY,” 1907. Photograph by Underwood & Underwood, Library of Congress.

The drawstring at the waist suggests that Rebecca adapted it to wear during one or more of her eight pregnancies (including at least two children born in the US). The many mends and repairs, as well as the overall use wear, show that she wore and washed it frequently, and took good care of it. (And yes, to those visitors who wondered aloud why it was still creased, we tried very hard – within the allowable boundaries of textile preservation – to make it look its best … but this skirt has been through the literal wringer countless times, and it is what it is.) Though a remnant of the “old world,” it was appropriate for a trip to the market or other everyday activities in her new life in Baltimore, when worn with a suitable blouse and coat.

The skirt was carefully made and carefully repaired, using both machine and hand-stitching. Here, you can see that the stripes on the inner waistband have been carefully matched, even though no one but the wearer would know.

So much for the garments individually. What do these two pieces, when compared, tell us?

They have many elements in common, despite their completely different style and purpose:

>Both were owned and worn by immigrants who arrived (with husband and kids) around 1900, and settled in East Baltimore – in fact both families were living on Front Street in 1910 (Ida at #125, Rebecca at #326). Both women belonged to Orthodox congregations; indications are that Ida belonged to Shomrei Mishmeres, and Rebecca to Anshe Niesen (a Lubavitch congregation, where she’s buried).

>Both garments were carefully saved, and later donated to the museum, by the original owners’ families, who provided us with a little bit of history … but not that much.

>We can learn a lot about these two women today, simply by looking at the materials, use wear, and evidence of care and manufacture.

Another element in common is that both items can lead us into the tempting trap of using a single garment to tell a person’s entire life story. Yes, these pieces can give us some hints, but – especially when what we have, other than physical evidence, is only a few tantalizing details (it was an “occasion dress,” “we think she wore this on the boat”) that seem so helpful at first glance, but in the end are unprovable – those stories we extrapolate are far from representative of each woman’s whole life (and even her whole wardrobe). In particular, we need to avoid using the stark contrast between the dress and the skirt to convey to modern visitors that “Ida was fashionable, and Rebecca wasn’t.”

(Speaking personally, it’s also all too easy to make up increasingly elaborate stories about the people who wore the clothes in our collection … but by sticking as close to the evidence of the textile itself as possible, I can avoid getting too far into the “she loooved flashy clothes!” weeds.)

At the same time, while having only a few pieces of evidence can be limiting or reductive when telling the individual stories of the owners, having both items of clothing helps us to tell a fuller story of immigrant women as a group, going beyond the stock images of recent immigrants fresh off the boat, working in sweatshops, or posed in a family portrait. There are times – whole lifetimes! – that fall in between those photo-worthy moments. It’s important to use all the available evidence to create a more accurate representation of life in East Baltimore in the early 20th century.

Other than these two garments – and, in Rebecca’s case, a few other articles of clothing – we have very little else in the collections about these women. Left: A machzor (prayer book), in Hebrew and Russian, dated 1855, owned by Ida Berman. Gift of Judith Davidson Greenfeld and Margery Greenfeld Morgan. JMM 2008.130.2. Right: Photo of Rebecca Siegel in the late 1930s. Gift of Hyman Siegel and Helene Siegel Sherman. JMM 1985.132.4.


 

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JMM Insights: Stitching Things Together

Posted on July 19th, 2019 by

It’s all in the timing!  Coordinating exhibit schedules is a task in itself, and when two exhibits occupy the same gallery this can be tricky. This month’s edition of JMM Insights comes from Director of Collections and Exhibits Joanna Church who will keep the story of Fashion Statement going through mid-September (with a little timely help from our friends). Missed any previous editions of JMM Insights? You can catch up here!


The Feldman Gallery currently holds two separate, but related exhibits: Fashion Statement, created by the JMM, and Stitching History from the Holocaust, created by the Jewish Museum Milwaukee (The other JMM!). We’ve been humbled and grateful for the positive attention these two exhibits have garnered since we opened them in early April (and even before!)

JMore reported on the fact that we would be displaying Gil Sandler’s porkpie hat way back in August of 2018. We were frontpage news for the JewishTimes. JMore named the exhibit a Top Event Pick for April 2019 and went on to dive deep in the whys and hows of the two exhibits with a feature story.

WJZ came to see us twice. Once in their “Coffee With” segment in May and then again for a morning segment on June 23, the day of the Jonestown Festival. Marvin joined his counterpart from the American Visionary Art Museum for an appearance on WYPR’s Midday with Tom Hall. Midday at the Museums discussed the ways the two museums address the Holocaust through textiles in current exhibits.

Attention from the press is amazing. As important is the attention we get from our educator partners. We especially love it when the exhibit in the gallery and students’ experiences in our historic synagogues work together to create discoveries and memories. A few highlights from our teachers, include:

“I just want to thank you again for the field trip yesterday to the museum.  The students were engaged and excited about what they learned and saw.  The amount of time was just perfect.  The activities were so appropriate, and your staff was wonderful and patient.”

“The students and parents all talked about how much they enjoyed their time at the museum.  The students said that they liked learning out the old clothing, the bathing rituals, the synagogue, the Old Testament scrolls, the arc in the synagogue, and the history of the building.  It has been a week and a half, and they still remember a ton!” 

Splitting the gallery the way we did for Fashion Statement and Stitching History from the Holocaust is a great way to maximize our use of the space. It allowed us to get all of this great attention, and share even more stories with our visitors … but what happens when one of those exhibits needs to close sooner than the other?

Stitching History will be closing here on August 5th (so if you haven’t yet had the chance to see it, make your plans now!); after a brief rest, it will go on display again at the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center of Florida. That leaves us with a slice of gallery to fill until September 15th, when Fashion Statement closes in its turn and we begin to prepare the gallery for Scrap Yard: Innovators of Recycling. As we have done often during this clothing-focused year, we’ve turned to Stevenson University and the Stitching Maryland Together project for assistance.

Stevenson’s design students were a tremendous help with our Fashion Statement interactives.

We were also delighted to be part of the Stitching Maryland Together short documentary film project, which premiered at Expedition I, the fashion design school’s gala runway show and senior showcase held May 4, 2019 at Ram’s Head Live. A few members of the JMM staff took the opportunity to attend the event, and – speaking for myself, at least – were awed by the talent and skill displayed by these students, from the fashion collections to the documentary to the logistics of pulling off an event of this scale.

We’ve offered the use of our slice-of-gallery to the fashion department at Stevenson, and while we don’t know yet quite what that will look like – we’re hoping to get some of the clothing featured during the runway show itself! – keep your eyes open for more information on our continued collaboration with these talented young men and women.


 

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Object-Based Learning at the JMM

Posted on May 30th, 2019 by

This post was written by JMM School Program Coordinator Paige Woodhouse. To read more posts from Paige, click here!


With students growing up in an ever-increasing digital world, museums offer object-based learning that powerfully engages them in an authentic experience.

What is object-based learning? Simply put, it is using objects to facilitate learning. An object can be a kippah, a t-shirt, or a synagogue. Objects provide a direct link to the past. They are vehicles for stories. Sometimes a single story. Sometimes multiple stories. The JMM has over 12,000 objects – just imagine all the unique stories they tell about Jewish Marylanders.

The JMM’s original exhibit Fashion Statement has several never-before-exhibited objects from our collections. These objects tell stories from the late 1880s to the present day. Not all of the stories for these objects could fit into the exhibit, you can read more about them here. 

Visually, an object provides only a few clues to tell what it is and why it is important. This limited initial information provides students the opportunity to ask a lot of questions. Guided analysis of objects invites students to have an active role in the process of discovery. Students are encouraged to look at an object with curiosity. They are asked what they notice and what they wonder about an object. They “read” the object for clues about the story it tells.

During our Fashion Statement educational program, students from Annapolis Area Christian School made observations about the items of clothing on display. Students noticed whether the item is clean or dirty. Why does it have a stain? They noticed that the object is small. How old do you think someone was when they wore this?  

As a tangible remnant of the past, objects make history real and relatable for students. Using objects to facilitate discussions enables students to develop different skills, including observational skills, inquiry skills, and the ability to draw conclusions. Rather than being didactically told the correct answer, students communicate with each other to come to a consensus. Leading the discussion and asking questions as a group builds a sense of confidence in students, making them active participates instead of passive listeners.

Students from Northwood Elementary School discuss their observations before collectively deciding what the best answer to the question is.

During the education program for Fashion Statement, once students made observations about an object, they thought of open-ended questions that they would want to ask the person who wore the item. This encourages students to think about another place or another time when the object was being used. This curiosity is encouraged and transformed into creativity when students write stories about their objects.

Students are challenged to consider what we can, and what we can’t learn (without doing some extra research) from objects. Furthermore, in the Fashion Statement exhibit, students consider what we can, or can’t, learn about people through their clothing. What parts of someone’s story we can learn, and what parts we are still curious about.

Students from John Ruhrah Elementary/Middle School worked together to create stories of their objects from Fashion Statement.

Looking at the objects on display in Fashion Statement, students made connections to their own lives. Do they like the item of clothing? Would they wear it? What does their clothing say about them? What can’t others learn about them from their clothing?

Object-based learning provides a tangible connection to a story. It directly connects to a person, place, time period, or event. Rather than reading a book in their classroom, students “read” an object to answer questions and draw conclusions about the past and present. The process of asking questions (and figuring out which questions to ask) about an object is just as important as discovering the answers.

The JMM houses numerous everyday objects that tell the stories of Jewish Maryland. Everybody has a story to tell. What everyday object would you choose for future students to use to learn about your story?

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