Guns & Gowns: 200 years of firearms and fashion

Aimee Suzanne Kruse-Ross

aimee suzanne kruse-ross | the neville now | dec. 2019

An original Thompson “Tommy” submachine gun from a local crime during Prohibition. A jewel-encrusted child's parasol once owned by the ill-fated Tsarina of Russia Queen Alexandria Feodorovna. From Colt's Revolver to Christian Dior's “New Look,” all of this and more are on display in “Guns & Gowns,” showing at the Neville Public Museum now through January 2021.

Visitors to the exhibit will find an impressive collection of 22 original gowns dating from the late 1700s along with an impressive collection of firearms that date back just as far.

“We found a lot of parallels between technological advancements and conflicts with the guns and the dresses,” says museum curator, Lisa Kain.

The parallels among the items on display showcase the advancements of history covering more than 200 years beginning with the American Revolution, spanning the Industrial Age and ending with the Vietnam War.

“The Industrial Revolution affected the use of metals in firearms, but it also affected textiles, sewing machines, dyes, etc. There were bigger things happening beyond just war that also affected style and function,” says Kain.

Of these 22 original gowns, 20 are from the Neville's own private collection along with two gowns on loan from the Mount Mary University of Milwaukee. So unique are these gowns that individual mannequins were specially constructed for each dress to help preserve them while demonstrating the fashions of the time.

With regards to the style and function of fashion, many of the dresses on display are exquisite examples of bygone workmanship, the earliest having been painstakingly hand-sewn and hand-pleated made of costly materials such as embroidered brocade, silk and velvet. As women then had to have help getting dressed with multiple layers of petticoats, hoops, bustles, corsets, stomachers, sleeves and collars, curators were left with a dubious task.

“Many of these gowns were in several pieces,” says Kain. “It was quite challenging for us to figure out which piece went where, like a jigsaw puzzle.”

Visitors to the exhibit can get firsthand experience of this challenge via an interactive mannequin complete with multiple articles of clothing from history.

Much of the collection on display once belonged to area residents, providing a unique look not only into the parallels mentioned by Kain but also a glimpse into the history of greater Green Bay.

Two of the embroidered brocade gowns on display originally belonged to the prominent Tank family, for which the Tank Park neighborhood gets its name. A wedding dress from the 1800s is also on display that belonged to a then 14-year-old Julie Beaumont.

Fashions displayed in the exhibit are not limited to gowns as a small collection of Civil War-era mourning jewelry, which utilizes human hair in its design is on display as well as personal items that once belonged to England's Queen Victoria.

From one war to the next, advancements in technology also saw great change in respect to firearms — all but two of which come from the Neville's own collection. An exception is an original Thompson submachine gun, used in a local crime during Green Bay's Prohibition era, which is on loan from the Green Bay Police Department.

“The Roaring Twenties are an excellent example of these technological advancements,” explains Kain. “You came out of post-war to the invention of the 'Tommy.' Now all of a sudden the criminals have them and police now need them to keep up and, at the same time, Prohibition is in effect so there's a lot of social change.”

The largest collection of guns in this exhibit hails from the Civil War era. Many of the weapons from this era were bequeathed to the museum by the families of the veterans who used them. According to Kain, the large collection of Civil War carbines is indicative of the cavalry units this area supplied during the conflict.

From flint-lock to flapper gown, machine gun to mini skirt, “Guns & Gowns” chronicles 200 years of history through the evolution of firearms and fashion.

Guns & Gowns runs now through January 3, 2021, at the Neville Public Museum.

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