Rummaging in Hennepin History Museum’s closets

A new exhibition highlights selections from the museum's extensive collection of historic garments

Cedar Imboden Phillips, executive director of the Hennepin History Museum, said exhibits drawn from the museum's collection of textiles are perennially popular. Submitted photo
Cedar Imboden Phillips, executive director of the Hennepin History Museum, said exhibits drawn from the museum's collection of textiles are perennially popular. Submitted photo

From a Civil War field surgeon’s coat to an exotic dancer’s red high-heeled shoes, a new Hennepin History Museum exhibit offers a broad sampling of the Whittier-neighborhood institution’s vast collection of historic textiles.

“We discovered that people love historic clothing,” said Cedar Imboden Phillips, the museum’s director (and a regular contributor to the Southwest Journal with her Moments in Minneapolis photo column).

Phillips said textiles make up a “very significant” portion of the museum’s roughly 25,000-piece collection, and “From Underwear to Outerwear” includes locally made lingerie, an Ojibwe “jingle dress,” a Minneapolis Millers uniform, a coat worn by 19th-century Norwegian violinist Ole Bull, a pair of New Power Generation drummer Kirk Johnson’s custom-designed baby blue Nikes and scores of other historically notable items, all with some connection to Hennepin County.

A 19th century Minneapolis police officer's cap. Photo by Dylan Thomas
A 19th century Minneapolis police officer’s cap. Photo by Dylan Thomas

Each has a story, some more interesting than others. There’s a green velvet homecoming dress purchased for a 1971 St. Louis Park High School dance and worn two years later by the original owner’s brother to the annual Gay 90’s Drag Ball. And there’s also the wooden walking cane once carried by Beverly “B.C.” Yancey, a Union Army veteran and Edina farmer who was one of the county’s first African-American residents. In a silent film-era advertisement, young women shimmy and pirouette in lingerie to demonstrate the unrestrictive undergarments manufactured by Kickernick, once headquartered in the North Loop.

When not on display, historic garments, hats and other textiles are stored wherever space can be found in the 44-room, 15,000-square-foot museum located in the Washburn-Fair Oaks Mansion district. Built as a private residence by milling industry innovator George Henry Christian beginning in 1916 — and completed two years after his death in 1918 — the mansion was purchased in 1957 to serve as the museum’s headquarters.

Hennepin History Museum turns 80 this year, and to celebrate museum leaders are attempting to get a better handle on just what they have in their collection. Phillips said only about 60 percent of its textile holdings are catalogued, but that percentage is creeping upward thanks to the work of collections manager Heather Hoagland, hired in 2017, and a crew of volunteers. (Photographs and short articles about their findings are regularly posted to the museum’s blog, hennepinhistorymuseumblog.wordpress.com.)

Behind the scenes, mystery boxes of unsorted clothing donations are marked with pink labels. Those are replaced with green labels after they’ve been opened and the garments removed and catalogued.

Phillips said the museum isn’t currently accepting donations. Once the cataloguing project is completed, she said, they’ll focus on filling in the gaps in the collection.

The current exhibition should “give people a taste of the range of things” in the historic clothing collection, she said, and maybe hint at what remains to be discovered, even within the museum’s walls.

Marield Caswell, a former exotic dancer who performed at the Roaring 20s near 5th & Hennepin in the 1970s and '80s, donated this pair of shoes worn on stage to the museum. Caswell used the earnings from her job to pay her medical school tuition. Photo by Dylan Thomas
Marield Caswell, a former exotic dancer who performed at the Roaring 20s near 5th & Hennepin in the 1970s and ’80s, donated this pair of shoes worn on stage to the museum. Caswell used the earnings from her job to pay her medical school tuition. Photo by Dylan Thomas

If you go

What: From Underwear to Outerwear

When: Through Sept. 15

Where: Hennepin History Museum, 2303 3rd Ave. S.

Info: hennepinhistory.org

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