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.
Collecting as Politics
For many viewers, the New York dress at left, created by the artist Sarah Caplan, brings to mind the events of September 11, 2001. However, this dress was created in 1999, as part of a series of five images, all in shades of blue, which included a shark, a surfer, a satellite dish, and lightning strikes. In October of 2001, the Curator of the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection acquired the New York dress for the collection, recognizing its new resonance after the events of the previous month. While this exhibit has revealed numerous ways in which the making and display of textiles can be considered political, in this instance, the act of collecting brought a new political significance to this dress. Whether in public institutions or family homes, choices about what historical objects to preserve for the future often reflect the politics and culture of the present day.
This exhibition provides an opportunity to consider our Textile Collection, rightly lauded for its global reach, as a repository for American history. Whose stories can we tell through the textiles we hold right now, and whose stories might we be able to tell better through future acquisitions? We currently have few textiles that address African-American experiences or those of early North American Indigenous peoples, the upheaval of the American Civil War, or the Suffragette movement. As a result of this research, we are seeking opportunities to acquire textiles that represent broader perspectives on American history and politics.