Coat, France, 1870, cotton, pearl, silk on wool, 23 x 17 in.
Anna Arndt just completed her third year in the School of Human Ecology, studying Retail and Consumer Behavior.
We are riding a wave of changing consumerism. Textiles today are mass produced – both in quantity and viewership. It isn’t enough to buy something, and it isn’t enough to wear it; other people must see you wearing it. Image, style, and aesthetic are projected onto social media platforms for the world to see and approve, and this has had an impact on how we consume apparel textiles. These social and cultural contexts give our clothing power.
The Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection has power. It can be seen in the skilled craftsmanship, the vibrant colors and patterns, and the stories that lay in the very fibers. When I first saw the French child’s coat from 1870, I needed to know the story. To me, the most intriguing aspect of this small pale-yellow coat was that its significance as a revered piece of exceptional craftsmanship has remained constant through the last 148 years.
The coat is a soft cream color with an intricately scrolling design of embroidered flowers, leaves, and vines adorning the front of the coat and the cuffs of both sleeves. Pairs of silk-covered buttons line the front and the collar is fastened with ribbon. It is easy to find beauty in the coat, which would have been even more apparent when it was made. The construction and embroidery of this coat would have required substantial thought, work, and skill, which seem extravagant in an item made for a toddler. In 1870 France this was a coat whose purpose was to convey how much the child was valued and how much value the family possessed. This coat would have been a status symbol signifying prosperity and that the family could afford to be clothe the child in such an ornate garment.
I chose this piece because a deeper significance took root when I considered the fact that this piece was so thoughtfully made – and its value had remained constant. That same idea is present when one views it today. When I first saw the piece, I was struck by its design, artistry, and the fact that it was made for a child. Craft paired with intention has the power to disrupt our opinion of mass-produced goods and urge us ask ourselves: what will people be saying about our children’s clothes in 148 years?
In 2019, the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Human Ecology launched a yearlong anniversary celebration of the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection. Over the past half century, the collection has grown from an original 4,000-piece gift to more than 13,000 objects that have inspired and informed thousands of students, researchers, historians, and textile aficionados. The 50-year celebration began on January 27, 2019, with the opening of new Lynn Mecklenburg Textile Gallery, a space dedicated to year-round displays of the collections. Activities continue into 2019 with a calendar of public exhibitions, symposia, lectures, and public workshops.