Fashion can often communicate social and political trends more effectively than actual words. One look at the loose, flowing clothes of the 1970s and the hair styled au natural or the rebellious short hems and cropped hair of the 1920s tells you almost all you need to know about those generations.
Of course fashion trends often take their cue from people in the spotlight.
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- This ball gown was worn by Mary Harrison Mckee, one of Benjamin Harrison's daughters, and displays a popular color scheme and design trend of that time period. Mary would have been married and had two children when she was wearing this dress.
"First ladies, whether they personally are into fashion or not, are in that spotlight," explains Jennifer Capps, curator of the President Benjamin Harrison Site here in Indianapolis.
Which is why the Harrison Home is displaying over 30 gowns of American first ladies this year in their "Raising the Hem: Historic Fashions of American Nobility" exhibit. The exhibit, which opened on February 18 and will be open to the public until December 31, displays a continually changing array of gowns, accessories, and undergarments worn by America's first ladies between 1850 and 1950.
As the societal position of women was changing, fashion changed to reflect that. First ladies are expected to be aware of evolving fashion, so looking at their style choices gives us a glimpse into American society during these time periods.
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- Caroline Harrison, President Harrison's first wife who died while he was in the White House, would have worn this dress while her husband was campaigning. The wives of politicians were often given handmade gifts such as the American flag handbag seen here with a campaign banner sown into it.
"Not only are you seeing how fashion changed through that period, but also what dictated that change in fashion," says Capps. "As you go through the time period and women are entering the work force in the early 1900s you don't see the bustle, you don't see the hoop, you don't see the sleeves that would get in the way in a work environment."
The Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site hopes to use exhibits like this to educate people in central Indiana about Indiana history, Harrison history, and American history.
The home itself belonged to President Benjamin Harrison, who is to date the only president from Indiana. Although he was born and raised in North Bend, Ohio, he moved to Indianapolis when he was 21 and spent the remainder of his life there. As president, he brought six new states into the union, helped introduce civil rights legislation and established relations with Central America.
In 1874, Harrison and his wife began construction on their $24,800 home on Delaware Street and 13th Street where the house still stands today. After President Harrison died of complications from Tuberculosis in 1901, his second wife and their daughter lived in the home until 1913. The home was sold to the Arthur Jordan Foundation and used as a dormitory until 1951 when the foundation decided to open the home to the public as a museum focused on preserving American history.
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- Grace Coolidge was the first first lady to wear dresses that did not include hoop skirts, corsets, high necks, and laced sleeves. This beautiful 1920s dress perfectly emulates the style of that era.
The pieces in this year's exhibit include dresses worn by Grace Coolidge, Mamie Eisenhower, Mary Todd Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, Helen Taft, Bess Truman, and Caroline Harrison. During their stay in the White House, all eyes in America were on them and what they were wearing, and these women used this opportunity to not only reflect but also affect the changing trends in American fashion, society, and politics.
For instance, Caroline Harrison's husband ran on the Protection of American Industry platform. To support this, Caroline wore a made-in-America gown, which would have been unheard of in the 1800s, to his inauguration.
The Harrison Home also tries to incorporate a broad theme with the different dresses they choose to display. A dress that will be on display this fall was worn by President Harding's wife, the first first lady who was able to vote in her husband's election. And later this year they will feature a gown worn by Caroline Harrison to one of the many Christmas or New Year's Eve events she would have attended.
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- Fashion trends are often fun and sometimes ridiculous, but a surprising amount of fashion is driven by practicality. This collection of typical 19th and 20th century accessories includes many handheld fans, a staple for women wearing heavy gowns in an un-air conditioned world.
But whether you're a history buff or not, this exhibit is definitely a must-see. After all, fashion is simply art you can wear, and there are some beautiful pieces of art at the Benjamin Harrison home this year.
The home is located near downtown Indianapolis, and is open for tours from 10:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Monday through Saturday. During June and July it is open on Sundays from 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Tickets cost $5 for college students and kids ages 5-17, $10 for adults, and $8 for seniors.