Tailcoat and vest: why?

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The Minnesota Historical Society preserves and makes available a wide range of materials chronicling Minnesota's history and culture. The goals of the Collections Department are to collect and preserve; provide access and interpretation; and engage in education and outreach. This blog is a tool to share these stories and let people know what is happening in the department.

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Tailcoat and vest: why?

By: Lori Williamson | Item of the Day | September 7, 2022

Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) receives many donation offers and only can select a few of those items to bring into the collection. In my work as an intern, I work with a range of these new acquisitions, some of which have immediately compelling stories. This tailcoat and vest is not immediately interesting; it is a fairly standard piece of formal menswear. So the question is: why this one? 

The main element that sets this piece apart is the vest’s label. It reads “CUSTOM DEPARTMENT. / THE PLYMOUTH, / MINNEAPOLIS./ MR. H.L. CARPENTER / DATE FEB 11TH 09.” This helpfully gives us the store the items were purchased at, the original wearer, and a date of creation. Most garments don’t have this level of provenance literally attached to them, which brings this piece from a standard jacket to one that is useful in building a Minnesota story. 

This label opens up what we can discover about the jacket. It is a piece of retail history, providing an example of what could be purchased at the Plymouth Clothing Company, which opens up greater discussions of shopping and consuming clothes in turn of the century Minneapolis. Having a named wearer provides greater specificity on who would be wearing and buying this type of garment and why. Despite its somewhat standard apparence, this jacket raises questions and can lead to a greater understanding of the history of dress in Minneapolis. 

While important information is preserved by adding an object like this to a museum collection, a certain amount of knowledge about this piece is inaccessible once it changes from a worn garment to a museum object. It will no longer be known through the type of movement and physical interactions involved in wearing. As a museum object, it must be handled with a certain amount of care and most information will be obtained visually. With textiles this careful handling  extends its life, but understanding these losses adds to a fuller understanding of what the thing is. Thinking about these complexities with new acquisitions allows for a better understanding of museums' roles and limitations.

Emily Anderson, 3D Intern