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Recovering Fashion Narratives

Costume + Textile archives  |  Film 

Case Study (Master's thesis)


Rhode Island Historical Society Costume + Textiles Collection


John Brown House, Providence, RI

Campfire Girls
Maharam Fellowship

For the Maharam Fellows in Applied Art and Design Fellowships, I selected working within the Rhode Island Historical Society (RIHS) Costume + Textiles collection for the primary fact that the both researchers and the general public are not typically aware of this collection. Intersecting with their collection of decorative arts and objects, my intentions originated to uncover under-recognized women’s stories in the spheres of community, culture and design. The result was discovering an archive previously unexplored and very much in need of further discussion, The Campfire Girls.


Exploring the profusion of multiple narratives existent within a singular object, the project allowed me to explore the collection, film and photography numerous pieces for the first time ever, and build an integrative framework for interdisciplinary questioning and activating  narrative complexity and object agency. Are we really asking objects the right questions? And if so, are we listening to them?

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How do we recognize absences within exhibited spaces?

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What is the purpose of collecting if the object remains hidden?

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Can object agency be reclaimed?

Historical archives are privately formed and publicly sustained to geographically record and comprehend the identities of people and lived experiences through the material objects they created or consumed. The RIHS costume and textile collection is housed at the John Brown House Museum, a historically white site ripe with the interfacing dialogues of slavery and abolition within the Brown family. These observations found a startling need to address an absence of diversity in communities represented in addition to more visibility from objects hidden in storage and stories unaccounted for. When viewing historical archives and collections, we must consider the phenomenon of collecting and conservation itself. These sites are typically founded and funded historically by white, wealthy communities who decide what events are worth telling, which people's activities and labor is important to preserve, by whom these traditions are intended to inform, and who the gatekeepers will continue to be and what are their motivations. 


Long after objects and textiles are placed in a drawer or upon a shelf or hanger, they continue to operate as dynamic vehicles to activate systems, values, cultural identities, and historical markers exploring the power of place through cultural production, civic actions, and historical entanglements. Similar to museums, historical archives often have their individual institutional identities. Their intentions exist within a community acquiring objects and collections on behalf of their public, acting as temporal caretakers in partnership with the originating community. Within the concept of shared guardianship, heritage is a relationship, rather than a possession.

Campfire Girls Archive

The Camp Fire Girls archive contains four dresses with matching headbands, pouches and sashes (circa 1910s-1920s); ephemera, photographs, journals, patches, and membership materials. Uncovering the Camp Fire Girls archive was a fortunate accident. Founded in 1910, the Camp Fire Girls was created as a youth organization for girls between the ages of 7-18 years old, similar to the Boy Scouts.


When the Campfire Girls began in Thetford, Vermont, its organizers utilized appropriated indigenous imagery for teaching girls and young women the ways of ‘Native American’ beliefs in an outdoor camp setting, wearing 'Indian' dress, and referring to themselves by 'Indian' names. Reflecting upon these artifacts 100 years later, we recognize absence of any grounded understanding within indigenous history and lifestyles, traditions, or the desire to engage in a relevant discourse with local indigenous communities. Yet these objects tell us about where we have been and what we can learn today.

The vast textile collection at the Rhode Island Historical Society (RIHS) is hidden and thus unknown to the general public, yet it offered a unique opportunity to create a dialogue about absence within a container absent from the collective consciousness. The RIHS does not collect items, it “actively acquires in a considered fashion”. These collections include some 25,000 objects, 5,000 manuscripts, 100,000 books and printed items, 400,000 photographs and maps, and 9 million feet of motion-picture film.

Approximately 7,800 objects reside in the
RIHS Textiles collection, spanning the 1670’s through 2005, encapsulating domestic: including samplers, carpets, quilts; costumes worn on the human body and accessories. Primarily focusing on absent narratives of women living in diverse communities within Rhode Island during the 19th - 20th centuries, this investigation brought forth systematic issues of non-representations in historical societies.
Additional design research included:​
  • Connie Hicks, a self-taught Providence-based designer and female entrepreneur operating a successful mid-20th century ready-to-wear fashion salon. Hicks went on to create socially, politically and environmentally concise wearable art pieces.

  • Betsy Metcalf Baker, an early-19th century Providence-based hat maker / educator who invented new methods in millinery construction. However, Baker decided not to patent her idea, but democratize her method to educate young women to learn the craft and earn a wage for themselves.

  • Objects and textiles styled in Orientalist designs and motifs proliferated by the transcontinental exchange of the China Trade in Rhode Island. 

The display of art and objects negotiate layers of multiple power relationships. Capable of bridging our understanding of complex cultural influences central to inquiry in display and observation, what constitutes the absence of narrative depends on a re-representation and reclassification of ethnographic fragments.


Material culture examines complex and shifting historical relationships with objects and how they transform over time.  I focused on a different way of viewing Rhode Island historical narratives and teasing out potential narrative ‘threads’ hidden within a textile or object, primarily examining the people and moments that shaped these items and their context.

"Counter to what we believe in silence as being dormant and inoperative, silence is an active and transitive process; one engages in it as a practice of silencing. Source is the other side of the coin to where exclusion lives. When learning to look at sources we can observe traces existent in the implication of choices, a primary tool when observing historical removals removed from the possible world of knowledge, somehow appearing less relevant to the practice of gathering and providing facts. This absence itself constitutes the process of historical production"

- Chapter 3: Strategies for the absent archive: Neglected identities, deaccessioning, and closeted collections, Breathing into Absence: Narrative Strategies and Interventions in Material Histories,  Global Arts and Cultures Master's thesis, 2021 

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