A new exhibit in the Sweet Briar Museum’s Whitley Gallery offers an intimate view of a genteel life in the late 19th century — and brings to vivid life a character who sometimes seems more fabled than real.
“Dressing Miss Daisy” opens Wednesday, Jan. 18, with a reception of light refreshments at 4:15 p.m. The show is an outgrowth of senior Jade Smith’s ambitions for a marketing career with a major fashion company. Smith is a business major from Lynchburg working toward her Arts Management Certificate as part of her plan to get there.
For her arts management practicum project in the fall, Smith co-curated the exhibit with museum and art galleries director Karol Lawson. It displays and interprets clothing and accessories belonging to Daisy Williams (1867-1884) — whose mother founded Sweet Briar in her memory. The show was inspired by research Smith completed for a spring 2016 museum studies class.
There are 28 items displayed along with interpretive texts that include excerpts from Daisy’s diaries and letters written in 1882 and 1883. A period map, glossary and lists of venues and names explain the many references in her writing to New York department stores, boutiques and dressmakers. Some, such as Macy’s and Lord & Taylor, are still around today.
Lawson suspects that one or two of the artifacts are mentioned in the texts, including a striped dress shown prominently in the exhibit.
On May 17, 1883, Daisy wrote to her mother, Indiana Fletcher Williams, in New York: “Yesterday I rode to Aunt Lils, wore my buff and blue dress, and I had a bunch of real daisys Lil thought they were artificial, and in my hat the artificial buttercups and she thought they were real. …”
Because Indiana, a grief-stricken mother, preserved so many of Daisy’s things, it’s easy to trace her progression from little girl to teenager. That’s true of her commentary, too, as she moves from delighting in pretty clothes to pointed opinions about fashion. Her writings are full of details of her daily activities and clothing — both hers and others.
From New York, she corresponds with the family’s housekeeper, Martha Penn Taylor, reporting in February 1882 that, “The fashion is to wear a great big artificial sunflower on their shoulder, but I do not think it is at all pretty.”
In November that year, on a return trip, she again writes to Taylor, noting New York women are donning furs and winter cloaks.
“The style is to wear a little stuffed bird on your hat, but I do not like it, as I always think how cruel it is to kill them,” she wrote.
Smith’s goal was to “show and tell Daisy’s personality” and that of the time period through her clothing and style choices.
“The ‘easiest’ part and also the most fun was doing the research about how clothing played such a major part in society during the eighteen-hundreds and what it could tell about a person, their status in the community and sometimes their own personal beliefs. Another fun part was looking through all the clothes!” Smith says.
Deciding what to include and putting it together to create the exhibit was the hard part. Discovering what a museum curator actually does was a revelation.
“As a business major, I went into this project with the mind of a CEO and I quickly found out that is not the case! An art curator wears many hats and is involved in many different aspects of an exhibition and doesn’t just oversee everything.”
Smith embraced the role, Lawson says. It’s not simply choosing what you’d like to display, she explains. There’s a process of determining if an item’s physical condition allows it to be viewed safely, researching it, then deciding whether and how it tells a story.
Smith’s research on Daisy’s brown jacket in the previous semester’s museum studies class gave Lawson the idea for the exhibit, which she then suggested as her practicum project.
“Through Jade’s eyes, I started realizing there’s more to it than silly shopping trips with her mother,” Lawson said. “It became apparent that you could draw people into the story of Daisy through her clothing. These aren’t just any little girl’s clothes. The thing that is fascinating — and I think Jade felt this, too — is that that child of all of our stories and myths was a real girl. She played in these clothes, she visited her friends in these clothes.”
Lawson sees the project as a true collaboration between student and professor and an exemplar of classroom theory and experiential learning coming together. Smith’s obvious enjoyment of the work — even during its tedious moments — lifted her own appreciation of it as well, Lawson says.
“It has been a genuine pleasure to observe Jade, as a student, move from simple admiration of a pretty garment to a more comprehensive understanding that one, these garments can be used to reveal compelling aspects of social history, and two, these are fragile relics of our shared story that require close care.”
The exhibit also created opportunities for Abigail Schutte and Grace Culley, both senior art history majors, to help with the installation as work-study assistants.
Now, Smith is looking ahead to taking Business Seminar I this semester, another class that requires students to apply theory in practice.
“I’m really excited to see how I can blend what I learned during this project — the creative aspect — with the literal business side of things,” she says.
After graduation, she hopes to study for a master’s in luxury brand marketing and management in France. It’s all part of her plan.
The exhibit will be on view through Nov. 17. Museum hours are 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday during the academic year. The museum is closed when the College is not in session. Tours are available by appointment. Contact Lawson at email@example.com or (434) 381-6248 to schedule a tour or for more information. Admission and tours are free.