PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — From an elaborate ceremonial wedding dress to the uniform of a player for the NFL, clothing can tell the story of a person as well as a time and place.
“It says a great deal about what's happening at the moment,” said Sarah Linn, co-curator of The Stories We Wear, a new exhibit at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia.
Inside the exhibit, hundreds of items stretching back more than 2,500 years, show not just what people wore, but what they experienced at the time.
“It says so much about the culture in which they're living, about their time period,” Linn said.
Like these Samurai items used during a children’s celebration.
Some belonged to a California family, who worked hard to keep them, even as they were sent to a Japanese internment camp during World War II.
“So, it tells this wonderful story both about Children’s Day and about the importance of Samurai and that history, but it also tells this really important story about American history and how we hold onto our history,” Linn said.
There’s also this dress on display, which was sewn during the Great Depression.
An elastic waistband and a hem that could be raised and lowered, allowed the dress to be shared by multiple women in a family.
“This was in the Depression when money might be a little bit tight, and the idea of a well-made garment needing to fit multiple members of the family might make sense,” Linn said.
There’s the gown of an opera star worn by Marian Anderson and a dress fit for a princess, like the one which belonged to Grace Kelly.
There is also an ensemble fit for a queen—a drag queen, that is.
“This one embodies so many parts of performance,” Linn said. “Drag itself is performance.”
However, the museum wanted everyone to get involved.
Using the #storieswewear hashtag, people anywhere can share pictures of what they wear and the stories behind it, like these current COVID-era nurses did, which then can appear on interactive monitors in the exhibit if selected.
“Here is an opportunity for people to share heirlooms and keepsakes that have been passed down through their families, that are important to them,” Linn said.
However, it’s not just about sharing what you wear on your skin, but what your skin might be wearing, too. Tattoos are also included in the exhibit.
“We wanted to talk about permanent forms of adornment,” Linn said. “We tend to get tattoos that embody something of our personal identity, and so we wanted people to share their stories about their tattoos.”
The exhibit runs at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia through mid-June. It can also be seen on the museum’s website, which you can access by clicking here.