New Exhibition at Fort Ticonderoga Explores the Diversity in Uniformity of Military Dress
Among George Washington’s many achievements, you may wish to include this: he’s the father of the first military uniform to represent a united, independent American republic.
You can see that uniform for yourself in a portrait of Washington by Charles Peale Polk in Fort Ticonderoga’s new exhibition, “Founding Fashion: the Diversity of Regularity in 18th Century Military Clothing,” which draws upon the fort’s extensive collections of 18th-century military clothing, art works and archaeological artifacts.
“The objects and artworks featured in this exhibit are unique,” said Chris Fox, the Fort Ticonderoga curator who organized the show.
Included in the exhibit are four rare American and British 18th-century uniforms and other textiles, such as an American soldier’s knapsack, a British officer’s sash and one of the few surviving examples of a British army soldier’s blanket.
“Historical objects are wonderful things, but it’s the history and the personal stories associated with those objects that have the largest impact, because they establish a meaningful link to this particular place,” said Fox.
The Revolutionary War soldier’s knapsack, for instance, was owned by one Benjamin Warner, who settled in Ticonderoga after the Revolution.
“He obviously felt compelled to save it because of its connection with his experience during the Revolution,” said Fox. “He left instructions that it be passed down from one generation to the next, which it was until it was donated to Fort Ticonderoga in 1928.”
The British army-issued blanket was retrieved by an American at the Battle of Hubbardton, a couple of days after Fort Ticonderoga fell to the British in 1777.
In fact, the British soldier had probably wrapped himself in it at the Fort after taking part in its capture, said Fox.
“Founding Fashion” is displayed in the Deborah Clarke Mars Education Center.
After this year-round, climate controlled facility opened in 2008, Fort Ticonderoga was able to start mounting exhibitions based on its collections.
“There’s little point in having collections if you can’t display them and make them accessible,” said Fox. “Pieces from our collections of uniforms, clothing and textiles have not been displayed in 25 years, and never like this. We’ve entered a new chapter in the Fort’s history; we’re rethinking how we incorporate our collections and our activities to better tell the stories of the Fort.”
Hiring its first Director of Exhibitions will help Fort Ticonderoga tell those stories, said Fox.
Matthew Keagle, who is completing a Ph.D at the Bard Graduate Center in Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture, has been hired to fill the position. As it happens, his dissertation topic is the significance of military dress in the 18th century.
“Fort Ticonderoga has the single best collection of military dress, by volume, any where,” said Keagle. “What makes Fort Ticonderoga especially impressive is that it not only has examples of military dress and military portraits, but archaeological artifacts excavated on-site. Each item helps us contextualize and interpret the other items.”
“Founding Fashion” includes many of the buttons, buckles, fragments of cloth and metallic trims that have been found at Fort Ticonderoga over the years.
“These artifacts show the diversity of materials used in the construction of military clothing in the 18th century,” said Fox.
“The artifacts attest to the human need to adorn oneself, even in war time and at a place like Fort Ticonderoga,” said Keagle.
Art selected from the museum’s collection illustrates how military clothing was worn and interpreted.
In addition to Allan Ramsay’s portrait of Major General James Abercromby, Polk’s portrait of Washington and others, the exhibition includes 19th century artists’ renditions of military dress.
Those renditions are not always accurate, but telling nonetheless, said Fox.
“Much of what is known about 18th-century military clothing is documented only through paintings,” said Fox. “But little of it survived, so there were few points of reference. Many of the uniforms portrayed in 19th century paintings are actually based on clothing from the War of 1812.”
The British and American uniforms displayed in “Founding Fashion” are among the few to have survived, said Fox.
“They were acquired by Fort Ticonderoga at various times from the 1940s through the 1960s. They were probably packed away and forgotten about until people came to recognize their significance,” said Fox.
Fifty hours were required to make a single coat, said Fox. A seven-minute, time-lapse video included in the exhibition enables viewers to observe the entire process, from measuring a person to cutting the cloth to the final fitting.
“Founding Fashion” is not limited to the gallery in the Deborah Clarke Mars Education Center, a static exhibition, said Beth Hill, Fort Ticonderoga’s President and CEO.
“The clothing worn by the museum’s living history interpreters this season is based in part upon the collections. Visitors can examine original garments in the exhibit and then see accurate reproductions of some of those garments worn by members of the staff as they present programs in and around the Fort. Moreover, living history staff can be watched constructing clothing every day,” said Hill.
Fort Ticonderoga has also initiated an interactive program for students called The Artificer’s Apprentice.
“After visiting the exhibit, students can experiment with tailoring and shoe making, two of the most important and common trades in military and civilian life in the 18th century,” said Hill. “They will learn about the local and global networks that supplied leather, cloth, and the other materials used by artificers. Students will draft patterns and sew cloth and leather, and become familiar with the economics of acquiring supplies and materials.”
For more information, contact Fort Ticonderoga at 585-2821.