Textile tales of politics and patriotism

By | November 16, 2016

Textiles have long been used by many cultures to promote military, political, and commemorative events.  The use of textiles as vehicles for propaganda, though somewhat less known throughout history, is the focus of Textiles: Politics and Patriotism, on view in Gallery 100 through March 5, 2017.

Take a close look at the works and you’ll discover stories and imagery woven into fabrics that deliver strong or sometimes subtle messages about a variety of political and patriotic topics. Many of these commemorative pieces were the result of advancements in technology that allowed for the mass production of textiles in Britain, France and the United States in the late 18th century.

Historical Handkerchief, 1832; American; printed cotton, 32 5/8 x 28 1/4 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. William A. McDonnell 97:1987

Historical Handkerchief, 1832; American; printed cotton, 32 5/8 x 28 1/4 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. William A. McDonnell 97:1987

From the 1770s on, handkerchiefs and bandannas commemorating important events, issues, or people were printed in England, France, and America. During this period, America was forming its own identity based on the democratic ideas of classical Greece and Rome. As the number of new national heroes increased, so did the ability to produce commemorative textiles. Though textile printing was occurring in America by the 1830s, similar versions of this print, HIstorical Handkerchief, were produced earlier in the 19th century, which may suggest a European origin.

Another fabric, Novelty Teddy Bear – Theodore Roosevelt, printed around 1902, features bears performing playful activities. One bear is dressed in a clown suit and wearing a monocle eyeglass. Another bear is holding a gun while another is shown climbing a tree – all references to President Theodore Roosevelt’s refusal to shoot a bear cub that was tied to a tree while on a hunting exhibition, deeming it unsportsmanlike. This event led to the creation of the “Teddy” bear.

Charles Lindbergh’s historic flight to Paris in 1927 is detailed in Cretonne Commemorating Trans-Atlantic Flight of Charles Lindbergh, 1927-33, a fabric that features an unexpected visual. A cat can be seen under Lindbergh’s portrait, representing the cat that he often took on flights (though not on his transatlantic voyage.) Viewers of this fabric might wonder why San Diego is represented in the imagery. As it turns out, Lindbergh’s plane was built in San Diego.

Quilt with Whigs Defeat or Democrats Fancy Pattern, 1860s; American; cotton; 91 x 77 1/2 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of Richard and Suellen Meyer 3:2013

Quilt with Whigs Defeat or Democrats Fancy Pattern, 1860s; American; cotton; 91 x 77 1/2 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of Richard and Suellen Meyer 3:2013

Advancements in textile production in the mid-19th century also led to the rise of quilting, which became a means for women to express viewpoints as they didn’t yet have the right to vote. Quilt with Whigs Defeat or Democrat Fancy Pattern, 1860s, and Whig Rose Quilt, 1850-60, represent two different political points of view with patterns that came to be known by the names of their respective political parties.

More traditional and modern textile techniques showcasing the cultural values and patriotism of Mexico, Java, Nigeria and Japan are also on view.

In this age of print-on-demand where messages can show up on anything – from t-shirts to tote bags to beach towels – the historical perspectives of political, patriotic or militaristic ideals from times past have laid the foundation for the common marketing tools of today.

Textiles: Politics and Patriotism is curated by Zoe A. Perkins, textile conservator.

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