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: PhD

Position title: 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 Student

Natalie Wright is a PhD student in Design History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her doctoral research uncovers the long overlooked history of clothing designs by, with, and for users with disabilities. It traces how garment designs have been made to either control or accommodate the wearer’s physical and cognitive development and argues that clothing is a lens into beliefs around normative development. Using a case study approach, Wright examines pivotal moments in discourses and design around disability that open up broader questions about meanings of dependence and independence at the core of American history.