Tag Archives: Charleston Museum

Exploring The Charleston Museum

I always love a great fashion exhibition, but it’s also fun to look for traces of clothing and textile history in places that are not “fashion” museums.  Because the clothes we wear and the business of making textiles and clothing is so intertwined with our lives, one can find fashion exhibited in almost any museum.  That’s especially true in places like the Carolinas where cotton production and cloth manufacture are important to the economy.

A recent visit to the Charleston Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, proved to be  full of stuff of interest to the fashion historian.  The Charleston Museum has a gallery dedicated to textiles, but the other exhibits have textile history as well.  One of the main galleries is a sort of Carolina Lowcountry timeline, starting with Native American culture, and then working its way to the present.

One thing I found to be particularly interesting in the telling of the the story of slavery is how the museum focuses on the culture of the enslaved Africans, rather than on the issue of slavery.  There are some artifacts that do make it clear that enslaved persons were considered to be property, but much of what you see is like the baskets above.  Today, many descendants of these people still make and sell these sweetgrass baskets, and so the basket weavers are a familiar sight in Charleston on the streets and in the market.  It is an object that visitors to the city can relate to, and it shows how the skill of making them dates back to slavery.

Southern museums and museum houses that date to the antebellum period (before the American Civil War) are often criticized for their glossing over of slavery.  Personally, I’ve been to a lot of museums and plantations in the South, and I’ve never had an experience where I left being shaken by how the site interpreted slavery.  This is not to be taken as a criticism of The Charleston Museum, as they only have so much space and as a general history and culture museum, perhaps the task is best left to another institution.  I will say that I could have done with fewer Civil War era guns, and more in depth coverage of human issues.

The photo at the top is of a cotton bale.  Cotton bales were large and heavy and represent a lot of human labor.  They also have on display a cotton gin (or engine), the machine that allowed cotton production to flourish, and with it, slavery.

Of course, the big event in Charleston was the Civil War, and in particular, the bombardment of Fort Sumter.  There is a large section on the war and lots of guns.  Whoever thinks the South was short on arms during the war has never visited a Southern museum.  There are enough surviving Civil War rifles scattered across the South to arm General Lee’s army.

But as we know, history is not just the battles fought.  History gets interesting when we start to see events as happening to people.  And the Charleston Museum does an excellent job of presenting life along with the battles.

Alongside the guns and uniforms, you will also see the clothing of women and children.

There are also displays of the tools used in textile and clothing making in the home and workshop, though the floating flax wheel (upper left) and yarn winder (upper right) are a bit odd.

Click to enlarge

I loved these little sewing accouterments, especially the pincushion encased in a carved walnut shell.

Click for details

My favorite object has to be this peddler’s trunk.  I can only imagine how exciting it must have been for an isolated farm family when a traveling salesman showed up at their door with this trunk of treasures.

Another section of the museum is a throw-back to the early days of its history.  The Charleston Museum was founded in 1773 and opened to the public in 1824. In those days museums were more like cabinets of curiosity than the well organized and mission statemented institutions of today.  As such, many of the oldest artifacts have nothing at all to do with the history, culture, or natural history of the region.

This mummy was acquired in 1893 by museum director and curator Gabriel Manigault.  The sarcophagus was added in the 1920s.  These are the sort of miscellaneous objects that collectors prized.  The interesting thing about this exhibit is that it is telling the history of the museum more than it is telling about the Charleston region.


There is also a children’s area in the museum, with lots of hands-on activities, but also with artifacts that tell about the lives of children in Charleston.

There is also a stuffed polar bear, but I somehow neglected to get a photo.  What do polar bears have to do with South Carolina?  Absolutely nothing.



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Unveiled, Wedding Attire at the Charleston Museum

Wedding attire must be the theme of March, as I was able to attend another exhibition dedicated to weddings, this one at the Charleston Museum.  I’ll write more about the museum in another post, but for now I’ll just say that it functions mainly as a history museum for the South Carolina Lowcountry region.  They have a fantastic clothing collection, most of it coming from Charleston families.  In presenting special fashion exhibitions, they explore not just the clothing, but they have the advantage in many cases, of knowing who owned a garment.  Many of their garments are also documented in period photos.

Traditionally, the museum used some of the costume and textile collection as part of the larger displays that told the history of Charleston.  About twelve years ago they started having special clothing exhibitions, but the problem was that there was no space to adequately show clothes.  I remember looking at a 1920s Worth evening coat that was displayed in a flat case, in a light-filled atrium.  Not an ideal situation, in any sense of the word.

Today the situation is entirely different, as a gallery dedicated just to textiles was opened in 2010.  It’s a beautiful light-controlled space, with a variety of viewing areas, and with seating for those who need to sit and contemplate (or sketch).  The only thing I do not like about it is that all the display areas are behind glass, and that does hinder viewing somewhat, especially if there are interesting details on the back of a garment.

The photo above shows the introduction to the exhibition which consisted of three dresses from different eras.  On the left is a dress from 1927, worn by Mary Gaillard, in the middle is a 1892 dress worn by Ethel Sanford in 1892, and on the right is a 1925 dress worn by Emily Gladys Canaday.  The rest of the exhibition is arranged in chronological order.The oldest dresses were early 1800s Regency style, but my photo is so poor that it is pointless to post it here.

So I’ll take up the show in 1830, when the dress on the left was worn. The bride was Margaret Izard, and the groom was Nathaniel Russell Middleton.  The dress is hand embroidered throughout.  In the middle is the 1842 dress of Middleton’s second wife, Anna Elizabeth DeWolf.  On the wall is a portrait of the second Mrs. Middleton in her dress.  Look carefully to note that her waist was not as small as it first appears to be.

The dress on the right is also from 1842, and was worn by Elizabeth Mary Lesesne Blamyer.  And on the far right is a lovely selection of groom’s vests, all of which were made of silk and worn between 1848 and 1860.

The Charleston Museum is very lucky to have this set in their collection.  The dress was worn by Louisa Jane Dearing, and the vest was her groom’s, Henry Edmondston.  They were married in 1859.  According to the notes concerning the dress, “The bodice laces in the back with 28 pairs of tiny bound holes.” Unfortunately that feature was not visible to museum visitors.

Yes, I know this photo is really poor, but the story behind the dress is too good not to share.  The dress was worn by Louisa Rebecca McCord in June of 1865.  The American Civil War had just ended, and materials were scarce.  According to Louisa’s diary, the bride finally located ten yards of white organdy, the only white goods available in Columbia, SC.  The price was so high that the family sold their remaining carpet, some chairs, and butter and lard from their plantation in order to pay for the fabric.

These two dresses date from 1883 and 1884, and were creatively positioned in order to show the most prominent features of the dresses, their bustles.  These were in a corner with glass on two sides and so visitors could see the slim silhouette of the front and the fullness in back.

I probably need to pause here and talk about color.  The overwhelming number of dresses shown were white, or whitish.  I made the comment when writing about the bridal costumes at Biltmore that I found it interesting that all the dresses were white when the vogue of white wedding dresses did not come along until 1840.  Of course, white wedding dresses did exist before that date, and by the look of things in this exhibition, they were common.  An interesting comment was made by Jessamyn: :The main thing that changed in the 19th century was the idea that white was obligatory for a bride.”

Here’s another look at the 1892 dress of Ethel Sanford.  The museum also has a matching evening bodice.

At this point I need to stop and put in another plug for Dressed for the Photographer by Joan Severa.  Having just read that book helped me see the changes from dress to dress.

The silk dress on the left dates from 1906 and was worn by Sarah Francis.  The suit was worn by bride Alma Grace Van Keuren in 1910.  What is really interesting is that the suit has a department store label, Louis Cohen & Co, Charleston, S.C.  Ready-to-wear for women was still in the early years, and in 1910 most clothing for women was still being made by professional dressmakers or at home.

This dress was worn by Alice Prioleau Ravenel in 1914.  Note how the train curves around to the front where it is attached to the dress with a spray of artificial orange blossoms.

These three dresses are from the 1920s.  On the left, a velvet dress worn by Harriett C. Arthur in 1922.  The middle dress belonged to Annie Kangeter and dates to 1921.  The bride’s sister made the dress, which you can see on the bride in the photograph  on the wall.  The third dress was worn in 1924 by Septima Toomer Holmes.

You can see how styles were becoming less ornamented in the 1928 dress on the left.  It was worn by Cornelia Milam, and was made by her mother.  The dress in the middle was worn by Ruth Petty Pringle in 1931.  It was bought in a Charleston specialty shop, The Frock Shop.

Left to right:  1937, bride Martha Kirk; 1942, bride Jean Walsh; 1945, bride Ruth Raymond Huegel; 1948, Bernice Alice Byrd, but altered in 1989 for her daughter Amy Bassett Cole; 1952, bride Elizabeth Lamis.

The textile gallery also has a section of casees and drawers to display accessories.

And, of course, what is a fashion exhibition without some shoes?

Unveiled runs through July 19, 2016, and I highly recommend it to anyone living or traveling in the Charleston, South Carolina area.


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The Charleston Museum – Charleston Couture

While in Charleston my sister and I were able to pay a visit to the excellent Charleston Museum.  I’ve written about the Charleston Museum before, and to read more about the museum you can visit that earlier entry.  On this visit, there were four exhibitions in the Historic Textiles Gallery.  The museum has a varied collection of textiles, and now that they have a gallery devoted solely to textiles, there is always something of interest to people like me.

This year they have dedicated the first display cases to the four seasons.   For summer, the curator put together a range of swimwear, accompanied by appropriate ephemera and accessories.   The Charleston Museum collection is made up mainly of things that do have a connection to the city and to the surrounding area, and most of their exhibits are historical in nature.  Oftentimes, the items chosen are not only interesting fashion, but they also add to the story of the city.

Such is the case with the blue eyelet swimsuit and cover-up in the top photo.  Vintage fashion people will be interested to know that the set dates to 1959 and is by Rose Marie Reid.  History buffs will be interested to know that the original owner was the daughter of the man who developed the Isle of Palms, and that the owner and her husband developed Kiawah Island.  Today both are famous beach resorts in the Charleston area.

The Charleston Museum has been collecting clothing for a long time the red striped suit was donated to the museum by its original owner, May Snowden, in 1925.

The tan checked suit in this photo belonged to Charles Hume Haig of Charleston, who wore it as a young man in the late 19th century.

Note the Jantzen diving girl on the two piece suit from the 1950s.  The blue knit suit in the top photo is also a Jantzen, and has a Charleston store label.

Much of the Historic Textile Gallery is now housing an exhibit called Charleston Couture.  The exhibit is a chronology of fashionable clothing that was worn by Charlestonians, though not all of it is, strictly speaking, haute couture.   It is a good opportunity if you, like me, need more exposure to items before 1920.

All the 18th and 19th century dresses above came from Charleston estates, but in all cases, it cannot be determined with certainty who the original wearers were.  The museum has good educated guesses for them though, using what they know about the age of the dress, the women in the household and other historical clues.

The Charleston Museum is really good about showing not just dresses, but also menswear and accessories.

The ivory dress is by Charles Frederick Worth and it is a true beauty, but the pink and black dress has the more interesting history.  It was made by Pauline Seba in 1890 for the trousseau of a prominent Charleston woman.  Seba, a Black woman,  was probably born into slavery in 1862, and rose to become one of the few Charleston dressmakers of the late 19th century who labeled their work.  Mme. Seba, Robes, Charleston, SC.

Another piece from Worth, this evening coat is made from black net, covered with glass beads.  The sleeves are cut-work lace, covered with black chiffon.

Mariano Fortuny, of course.   The two Delphos dresses belonged to the same woman who owned the Worth coat.  Can you just imagine what her closet was like?

The black stenciled coat is also by Fortuny, and it belonged to Charleston artist Elizabeth O’ Neill Varner.  Several years ago the coat was in an exhibit at the museum, and due to the lack of space, was shown flat.  What a difference it makes seeing it on a form!

So much prettiness!  The black 1920s was made by Francois Bacus, in Luneville, France.  The firm employed embroiderers in the art of broderie de Luneville.  The pink robe de style was inspired by the work of Jeanne Lanvin.  As for the stunning one shouldered black number with the train, no label was mentioned in the exhibition notes, but it was owned by Gertrude Sanford Legendre, a wealthy South Carolina/New York  socialite and woman after my own heart, so it is possible the label was removed.

The green gown was worn by Eleanor Rutledge Hanson in 1932 for a court visit at Buckingham Palace.  Note the matching jacket.  The little sequined jacket is from Hattie Carnegie, but there were no details given for the black dress with the spectacular sleeves.  Oddly, the coral dress is from Lee Clair, a line of “better” cocktail wear for juniors.

The black and white ensemble is from Bill Blass, and the red dress is by Estevez.

There was also a quilt exhibit, and one on Lowcountry embroidery.  I’ll be showing a spectacular piece from it later on.


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New Textiles Gallery at The Charleston Museum

Courtesy of The Charleston Museum

I was thrilled to read this week that the Charleston Museum is in the process of creating a permanent textiles gallery.  For the past five years or so the Charleston Museum has been doing special exhibitions that drew from their extensive costume collection.  Unfortunately, there was no good spot in the museum in which to exhibit textiles.  One of the special exhibits areas is flooded in natural light, and several of the exhibits I’ve attend were actually split in two parts, with some of the display on the ground floor and the rest of it on the second.

But those problems will soon be over, as the new Textiles Gallery opens on October 14, 2010.  It will have some state-of-the-art features  that ensure the proper conservation and preservation of the objects:  special lighting, cases and mounts that are conservationally-sound, and pull-out cases to display smaller and fragile items. According to textiles curator Jan Hiester, “In this new textile gallery, we can display many more examples from our extensive textile and clothing collection, in different contexts and through various themes. The state-of-the-art casework lighting will allow us to include rare and fragile pieces previously considered too delicate for exhibition and to focus on a wide range of interesting topics.”

This is wonderful news for those of us who live in the Southeast.  While there are several major collections in this region, most museums just do not have the space for a gallery devoted entirely to textiles and costume.  It’s great knowing that anytime you visit Charleston, there will be an exhibit devoted just to textiles!

Just one more word about the Charleston Museum, even without the new gallery, it has always been well-worth a visit by the fashion history fan.  They have done an outstanding job of incorporating clothing and textiles into their permanent history exhibits.

The first exhibit in the new gallery is typically Charleston: Threads of War: Clothing and Textiles of the Civil War. But don’t expect to see just uniforms.  The exhibit will focus on both the home front and the fighting men of the Civil War.  Sure to be very enjoyable!

All images courtesy of The Charleston Museum




The top dress is made of yellow silk damask and was worn by Josephine Manigault to a ball in 1886 or 1887.  The fabric had been purchased by her father, Louis Manigault, c. 1852.

The second dress is made from silk taffeta, and was worn by the donor, Sarah Francis Roach, for her wedding in 1906.

The shoes are a light blue satin decorated with silver braid, and date to around 1770.  They belonged to Eliza Lucas Pinckney, mother of two of Charleston’s most famous sons.

My thanks to Rachel Chesser at The Charleston Museum for her help with this post.


Posted by Michelle:

hmmmmmm I live in the town of Pinckney! You think they will let me have those beauties! hehehe.. I so love museums and textiles sounds like a fun roadtrip!! 

Tuesday, July 13th 2010 @ 6:47 PM

Posted by Stacey:

I absolutely ADORE the textiles at the Charleston Museum. We went to the exhibit “To Dye For” and I really enjoyed it. I’m glad to know there’s more to explore there! Thanks for sharing:) 

Thursday, July 15th 2010 @ 6:46 PM

Posted by heather:

Those were out standing if only we could have those kind of creative attributes in todays clothing. 

Friday, July 16th 2010 @ 10:02 AM

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Age of Glamour ~ Charleston Museum ~ FASHION JOURNAL

Here’s the latest from the Charleston Museum, in Charleston, SC.  For the past 3 years they have been featuring parts of their costume collection in special exhibits.  This one is called the Age of Glamour, and from now until September 5, you can see items from the 1920s, and after September 9, the focus is on the 1930s. 

This exhibit is larger and more ambitious than the previous ones, which focused on accessories and underwear.  In several ways, this is their best costume showing yet.  There were more items, and the display area was larger.  The focus was narrowed and clearly defined.  There were several exceptional pieces on view.

Probably my favorite item was a riding ensemble from Abercrombie & Fitch.  Maybe that isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the glamorous 20s, but the idea of the sportswoman who could transform herself into a siren at night was new and alluring!

On the negative side, some of the items were very hard to see.  One of the best pieces, a beaded evening coat from Worth, was laid flat in a display case, with dresses crowded on either side.  I can understand the flat display, but that piece deserved a display that pointed out the specialness of the coat.  As it was, I had a hard time even sketching the lines of it.  They also had a wonderful stenciled black velvet Fortuny coat.  The display case was so dark that it was really hard to see.

Some of the items chosen made me question the definition of “glamour.”  The lingerie pieces chosen were quite plain, and not at all special.  They may have chosen them because they just finished up a lingerie exhibit, and perhaps their more luxurious items had just been on display.  And there were no hats!

What I’d like to see in exhibits of this kind are groupings of the entire ensemble.  Show the hat, frock, shoes, handbag and jewelry as a 1920s woman would have really worn them!



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Fashion Journal – The Charleston Museum, Charleston, SC

The Charleston Museum is one of the oldest museums in the States.  Much of what is there relates to the culture and history of the area, and they have a large costume collection.  Much of what is on exhibit is mixed in with other kinds of artifacts, but since February they have launched four special exhibits that focus just on undergarments. Called The Foundations of Fashion, the exhibit changes every four months.  When I was there in March, the exhibit focued on the top part of the body.  Go now to see beauty aids.

The second page is bits and pieces from the regular exhibition.

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