See Historic Apparel Worn by First Lady Harrison

This Friday morning, June 2nd, coffee and donut lovers of fashion and history rejoice! Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site is hosting one of their monthly Coffee with the Curator events, but what’s special about this month’s event is that they’ll be sharing historic frills, frocks and other finery, that were worn by First Lady Caroline Harrison and other ladies of the White House during Harrison’s era.

They will also have shoes, stockings, purses, calling card cases, capelets and other sartorial wonders for you to swoon over.

We chatted with the Curator, Jennifer Capps about the event.

Polina Osherov: Jennifer, tell us a bit about yourself – Your background and how you came to be in this current position.

Jennifer Capps: I am a native Hoosier growing up near Fountain City, Indiana. Family vacations were to historic sites and my mother and aunt volunteer at the Levi Coffin State Historic Site where I started helping with tours when I about nine years old. I attended IU East and IUPUI majoring in history with a focus on museum studies. I have been an employee of the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site for almost 27 years. In August of 1990, I started working at the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site as a work study student. Then I was hired as assistant curator and have been curator since 1993. Working at a small museum, I wears many hats. My current title is VP of Curatorship and Exhibitions. I do not remember a time that I was not fascinated with history. History, genealogy, and a love for antiques have been a huge part of my life. I live in Irvington a historic neighborhood on Indianapolis’ east side.

PO: You guys host this event Coffee with the Curator on a regular basis, what has been your most favorite event to date?

JC: This will be the Presidential Site’s 32nd Coffee with the Curator, and it’s been a great way to showcase the extraordinarily rich and varied collection we have of over 10,000 nationally significant artifacts. We’ll be able to keep this up for a while! It is difficult to pick just one, but I am fond of the times that we have focused on President Harrison’s trips or vacations: “From Sea to Shining Sea” and “Presidential Parks & Recreation.” These Coffee with the Curator events showed artifacts given to Harrison on a 10,000 mile train trip across the country and focused on his efforts to preserve national forest and land for the enjoyment of all including Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks.

PO: Is there a unique acquisition story behind any of the objects you’ll be showcasing?

JC: Many of the artifacts showcased were saved by the family. When Caroline passed away in the White House in October of 1892, her garments were packed in trunks with dried tobacco leaves to keep out the pest. In the late 1930s the family of daughter Mary Harrison McKee sent the clothing to the museum still packed in the same trunks along with items that belonged to Mary while in the White House. More recently descendants of son Russell Harrison have given us additional items belonging to Caroline Harrison and May Saunders Harrison. We have also acquired serval pieces belonging to Caroline and Mary from the  collection of Mrs. Van Cortlandt of New York. She was an early collector and asked Mary Harrison McKee for pieces that had belong to her and her mother. Mrs. Van Cortlandt would note when she received the piece, who it was worn by and date, and from whom she received the piece. These were later purchased by a donor and given to the museum.

PO: What can a modern day student or lover of fashion learn from these antique garments?

JC: I believe students can learn that more than a simple hemline changed in the lives of women. As women’s social status changed and they entered the work force; their clothing styles reflected more freedom in mobility. They will also learn that even like today there is “high fashion” and there is what is being worn by the everyday women even if you are a First Lady. Extraordinary craftsmanship and handwork you just don’t see anymore…

PO: What do you hope participants will gain from the event?

JC: An appreciation for the details of the fashion of the day and a better knowledge of the Harrison family history.

PO: Any other events coming up that fashion lover’s might enjoy?

JC: Wicket World of Croquet is this Saturday, and there’s always a great see-and-be-seen vibe with participants in their most stylish dress whites. There’s a lot of personality and individual flare. If you don’t play croquet, porch party tickets are still available, and include a full afternoon of food, drink and socializing.

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