The Way We Wore: A Bicentennial Fashion Show Gives Tennesseans a New Perspective on History

Tennessee's bicentennial celebration offers us a chance to examine, as a state, where we are, where we've been and, thanks to the work of one professor, what we wore on the journey.

Sue Bailey, associate professor of home economics at Tennessee Technological University, has spent the past year recreating the clothing Tennesseans have worn over the past 200 years. The collection, "Treasures from the Trunk: A Bicentennial Celebration," makes its debut at Tennessee Tech in a live fashion show and reception at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 7, in the University Center's Multipurpose Room. Throughout the show, musicians will provide music that corresponds with the period of the clothing. Tickets are $5, $3 for students.

To create the garments, Bailey and a team of diligent students, including Tammy Connor, Libby Davis and Elizabeth Jenkins, sought out authentic patterns and materials to make replicas of typical women's and children's clothes. Their work was assisted by an "Arts Build Communities" grant from the Upper Cumberland Development District. This year, through a Tennessee Arts Commission grant, they will complete the collection with men's clothing, including some Civil War soldiers' uniforms.

Bailey began the project by researching the history of clothing in the region. "I looked back at the 200 years," she says, "and whenever there was a significant change in fashion, that's when I would make another garment to represent that time period."

Bailey says our clothing has always reflected a great deal about the world around us: social structure, gender roles, economic status Q even the state of the union. For example, prior to and during the Civil War, clothing was elaborate, restrictive and highly decorated, Bailey explains. Near the end of the war and afterward, designs used less fabric and less decoration, were more modest and allowed for more mobility; colors were more subdued.

A similar phenomenon occurred in women's fashion around the time of World War II. During the war, resources were scarce, and dresses were short and fitted. After the war and into the 1950s, full skirts and blouses took advantage of the abundance of material.

Undergarments also changed with the times as women's roles in society changed. With the women's suffrage movement of the early twentieth century, the restrictive boning and corsets of the previous century gave way to looser, more comfortable garments.

Bailey says, "Looking at the clothes is a great way to start thinking about your roots. The clothing changes as we change."

To re-create Civil War uniforms, Bailey purchased authentic material Q a rough, heavy wool Q from Hamilton Dry Goods in Sparta. Tennessee was divided in its support of the war, so Bailey will create both Confederate and Union uniforms; a frock coat provides an example of what a civilian man might have worn.

Last October, Traveler's Inn visitors got a preview of the collection at a meeting of the Nashville Area Home Economists and a Family and Consumer Sciences group of Nashville. March 27-30, Bailey will exhibit the collection in Jackson at a meeting of the Tennessee Association of Family and Consumer Sciences and in Jackson schools in recognition of Women's History Month.

In June, the exhibit can be seen at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville during the meeting of the National Association of Family and Consumer Sciences. July 7-21, the show goes on display at the Cookeville Depot Museum. The exhibit then moves to the Van Buren County Fair for July 28-August 3. In December, the show returns to Traveler's Inn, and, on its return to Tennessee Tech, will be installed in the university's South Hall in the permanent historical textile collection.

Bailey particularly hopes schools, civic groups and other organizations will take advantage of the availability of the unique collection: because the pieces are not antiques, they are not delicate and can be handled. One example Bailey gives as an ideal use for the collection would be to select clothes from a specific time period to accompany a history or social studies lesson on that period. The clothes can be modeled on a live person or a mannequin or simply held up for viewing. Use of the collection requires a modest fee for shipping and cleaning, but Bailey also hopes to document the collection on slides for further use in schools and libraries.

"It's very flexible," she says. "It's a neat, hands-on way to teach history."