Politics at Home: Textiles as American History

Politics structures how people live together in communities. It addresses governance, power dynamics, resource allocation, and may cause allegiance, negotiation, and conflict. Political ideas shape civic, national, and international arenas, but they are often formed within the home. Political beliefs are communicated through choices of domestic furnishings and personal adornment.

The use of particular symbols, emblems, colors, or mottos transforms everyday textiles into political statements. At the same time, textiles are more than simple illustrations of political events, actors, or causes. Making textiles within or for the home can also be a political act, by enacting specific ideologies or by contributing to the nation’s production and trade – its “political economy.” The creation and display of textiles invoke themes of participation and representation that have sat at the heart of American politics for more than two centuries. Below on this website are four “homes:” the Federal Home, the Progressive Home, the Revival Home, and the Activist Home. These demonstrate how domestic spaces have fostered political work throughout the history of the United States.

This exhibition also prompts reflection on how the collecting of textiles, both in the past and today, reveal political values. The textiles on display are drawn exclusively from the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection, part of the Center for Design and Material Culture in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Human Ecology. We welcome dialogue about political textiles in viewers’ own homes, and the ways in which textiles can represent diverse and dynamic American histories.

Curator Profiles

Dr. Marina Moskowitz

Credentials: Lynn and Gary Mecklenburg Chair in Textiles, Material Culture, and Design

Dr. Marina Moskowitz has long had an interest in the “stuff” of human life. Early in her career she worked in curatorial roles in history museums, using artifacts to engage communities with their local histories. After receiving her Ph.D. in American Studies at Yale University, working on the role of material culture in building national communities of American consumers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, she moved to Scotland to take up a post in History and American Studies at the University of Glasgow. At Glasgow she taught across various period and subfields of American history, as well as teaching material culture and public humanities to graduate students, and advising a cohort of wonderful doctoral students across a range of topics in political and cultural history, and especially material culture, including the history of textiles.

Natalie Wright

Credentials: PhD Candidate

Natalie Wright is a PhD candidate in Design History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her doctoral dissertation, tentatively titled “Functional Fashions: A History of Dress and Disability in the United States, 1950-1975,” explores the under-researched but crucial role that clothing played in the cultural construction of disability and “functionality” in postwar America. This work is supported by a Joseph-Armand Bombardier Doctoral Fellowship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Wright received her MA from the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture and her BA from the University of Toronto, Trinity College. She has held curatorial positions at the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection, the Chipstone Foundation, and the Canadian Museum of History. Her work has been published in Dress: The Journal of the Costume Society of America, Elusive Archives: Material Culture Studies in Formation (University of Delaware Press, 2021), as well as in exhibition catalogues. Wright has collaboratively curated nine exhibitions across her career, including four with the Center for Design and Material Culture.