Simply, both were born of Necessity. One is used in field sports and self defense, being the evolutionary result of ancient weaponry and hunting tools. The other, provides protection from the elements and adherence to social norms. Yet, although they seem worlds apart in the grand scheme of life, they both defined gender and spoke of the class, taste and attitudes of those who sported these necessary showpieces. I’m referring to ‘Guns and Gowns’, which is the new exhibit at the Neville Public Museum.
True, you don’t need a gown to be adequately clothed, but that’s my point. Both firearms and clothing we very much a necessity. Men and women that came before us used these necessities and turned them into a status symbol.
Sometimes, it spoke to the types of people those showing off their particular choice were. Don’t believe me? Try the twenties, where gangsters toted Tommy Guns and their female companions wore flapper dresses. How about the Cowboy who protected his herd with a Winchester rifle or the saloon girls who waited for them with short red dresses with corsettes, garter belts and stockings?
Truth is, a gun could very much make the man, and the same could be said for a gown making the woman.
So, on with my experience in the ‘Guns and Gowns’ exhibit…
It’s an unseasonable January day in Green Bay. The temp is above freezing and the dreary clouds above are unleashing rain to the earth below. As for me, I’m walking towards the entrance of the Neville Public museum. Hopefully, I will stumble upon on a new fact that will enlighten me on a new element of history. It’s always fun to pause, ponder and philosophize the blunders and triumphs of our ancestors.
Even as I speculate on what I might find, I’m treated to an unexpected delight unrelated to the exhibit that has lured me here. I meet the lady at the counter. Promptly, after asking if I’m here to visit the Museum, she informs me. “It’s seven dollars for the Museum, unless you’re a veteran.”
I immediately anticipate a discount. “What if I am a veteran?
The lady’s brows raise, pleasantly surprised. “Are you?”
I nod and smile. “Yes.”
“Do you have an ID or something?”
“Sure.” I reply, as I dig my VA card from my wallet and hand it to her.
She studies my ID and surprises me, as she returns it, by saying, “Put your wallet away then.”
I simply can’t believe she said that. “You mean its free?”
“Absolutely, for all veterans.”
“That is very cool, thank you.”
She gives me a brief rundown of the museum and explains the map, placing the white sheet of paper in my grasp. I thank her once more, shed my jacket in their coat room and begin perusing the new exhibit.
Immediately, as I assess the first exhibits, I realize this is a quality temporary addition to the museum. There are dresses, worn by a Dutch woman of some importance on display next to a flintlock firearm. Neither are reproductions, they’ve survived many years and give testament to our nation’s birth. In other words, they’re the real deal and symbolize the revolutionary war.
As I progress through the ages, I recognize many guns that lie in cases before dresses from that same era. I must admit, I’m not a fashion guru by any sense of the word. I have seen similar replicas of a few gowns on shows like Little House on the Prairie and what not. Yet, the guns, like the Winchester and the Springfield rifle, I have a better understanding of, when it comes to significance and importance.
The history of the two, I’m referring to guns and gowns, do tell a story. And as I realize many relics were significant to the technological progress of the period in which they represent, the owners were probably pretty hip and cool. Back then, throwback or retro was not something one longed to project. Of course hip and cool were not words till the fifties or sixties, so I guess you’ll have to go with the ‘talk of the town’
By the time I get to the first world war and the roaring twenties, I’m seeing weapons and attire from each decade of the early and mid 20th century. The last time period would be the 1960’s, where pop culture, clothing and political unrest provided evidence of a youth movement of idealism and rebellion.
In the center, which I find is the most curious portion of the exhibit, lie weapons of the Axis Powers(the enemies of the Allies in which to United States fought along.) I find it curious because this this exhibit is very much an American tale. Seeing so many weapons from the enemy does raise a brow. There is a shred of logic, or at least a good reason, as to why these weapons are here.
Basically, they tell the tale of the Wars that brought the US to its present standing in the world. US weapons of the time were returned to the government after use. So, German, Hungarian, Japanese and others were the weapons present in these cases.
I also find some cases holding Revolvers that were so popular in the west. As an added bonus, novelty guns like the cane gun and pen gun give me pause. They seem like such spy worthy accessories, I do like the sixties spy movies. Other than that, there is some interesting information on the beard tax in Russia and some designer dresses from places like Paris and New York.
I have to say, it wasn’t spellbinding nor did it cause an epiphany, but I did learn a couple tidbits of American culture through the ages. As I progressed through time, I could feel the time periods start to steamroll towards the United States of the present. The exhibit ‘Guns and Gowns’ is definitely a great overview of the history our country up till nineteen seventy. I think it’d be great for a youngster who’s cloudy on the highlights of our Nation’s past.