The Neville Public Museum

The Neville Blog

Guns & Gowns

Wednesday, February 08, 2017
Over the course of the last several months we have been preparing artifacts and research for our one-night-only "Guns and Gowns" event.   

Fortunately, a large portion of the research on the guns was already done.  Considering the generosity of our donors, the importance that firearms played in the establishment of Green Bay, and the significance of Fort Howard, the museum has hosted a number of exhibits featuring guns and other weaponry.  Dresses however, not as much.  Although the fashion collection is quite large and the donors just as generous, there hasn’t yet been an occasion to “dress up”… until now.

One of the biggest challenges we faced when choosing artifacts for this event was something that wasn’t apparent from the start.  The initial idea for the event was to use time periods where we knew we would have a good selection of firearms, and then find gowns to match.  However, as we searched through collections it became clear that the periods for which we had some of the most interesting guns, typically wartime, were also times when, for many reasons, fashion was not a priority.  

1847 Walker Colt Revolver (#2002.10.238)
The Civil War and WWII periods were the most challenging.  The Neville certainly has dresses from both era’s but few of them, if any, reach “gown” status.  Most of them are either practical, every-day type fashions, or made specifically for a purpose or job.  It was more important for most people during wartime to keep their families safe and fed, than to worry about frills and bows.

For example, the beautiful gun-metal grey wedding dress we will be displaying alongside our Civil War firearms was originally worn in 1853 by Louisa Gardner.  At this time it still would have been relatively uncommon for women to wear white on their wedding day. Often they would either wear their best dress to the ceremony, or have a dress made which they could also use on other occasions.  This wedding dress was worn again a decade later by Gardner’s stepdaughter, Mrs. O.C. Ely but we don’t know for certain why.  Considering how beautiful this gown is even over 160 years later, it may have been reused because it was such a lovely dress, or because it was a family heirloom.  It may also be possible that it was practical choice in uncertain times, or some combination of reasons.

 1853 Wedding Dress (#4595/2216)
In the case of the Civil War and WWII dresses, as often happens when doing historical research, the lack of evidence or artifacts is just as interesting as having a lot to choose from. 

Justine Kaempfer
Intern
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