‘Uniformly Dressed’ At Charleston Museum

Photo: sean money

Uniform coat, 1790s. This blue silk coat belonged to Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (1746–1825), South Carolina lawyer, statesman and politician. Courtesy of the Charleston (S.C.)  Museum.

 CHARLESTON, S.C. — The Charleston Museum is presenting “Uniformly Dressed” in its Historic Textiles Gallery. This original exhibition explores the uniform in its many manifestations. While military uniforms first spring to mind, any group that requires a unified identity may wear a uniform or at least guidelines of dress. On view through August 11, the exhibition spans the Eighteenth through Twentieth Centuries and includes diplomatic, work, medical, sporting, school and military uniforms.

Diplomatic uniforms traditionally identified the wearer as someone given the special task of representing a government while not being part of the military. These uniforms tended to be rather flamboyant to set them apart from ordinary citizens. A very early diplomatic example is a brilliant blue silk coat worn by Charles Cotesworth Pinckney in the 1790s, likely from his service as ambassador to France under George Washington and John Adams. Pinckney became part of what was called the XYZ Affair, an attempt to establish relations between the American and French governments.

A later diplomatic example is the diplomatic uniform coat, epaulettes and chapeau, 1858–60, worn by Francis Wilkinson Pickens as ambassador to Russia under President James Buchanan. Pickens later became governor of South Carolina and served during Secession and the Civil War.

 Sporting uniforms represent team sports as well as individual activities, such as horse racing. Charleston had some of the earliest race courses in America, with wealthy plantation owners outfitting their jockeys in livery colors. The 1840s jockey silks worn on Colonel William Alston’s plantation still retain their vibrant red and green stripes.

Work uniforms range from domestic employees to firefighters, dressed to be quickly identified as someone doing their job. Charleston had some of the earliest fire companies in the United States, and the textile collection reflects that longevity. The exhibit includes a red wool firefighter’s coat, circa 1880, worn by Edward Willis (1834–1910) of the Aetna Fire Company, a volunteer organization active from 1830 to 1882. Also, a Heston Fire Company helmet from the late Nineteenth Century represents one of two African American companies in Georgetown, S.C.

Also ready to serve others were those in the medical profession. This portion of the exhibition concentrates on the women involved in the American Red Cross, as well as those serving as nurses, on and off the battlefield. A highlight is the Red Cross uniform from World War I worn by Charleston Renaissance artist Anna Heyward Taylor (1879-1956). She was one of the first South Carolina women to serve in the Red Cross during the war; she served in France for 18 months.

Among school uniforms in Charleston, the Citadel cadet uniform is represented by a coat from 1886 that was worn by Master Sergeant Cadet Arthur Merritt Kennedy of Williston, S.C. Kennedy graduated from the Citadel in 1887 and delivered the commencement address. 

The show wraps up with military uniforms from a variety of branches and wars. Uniforms range from a rare silk Revolutionary War uniform coat worn by General Thomas Pinckney to a US Army Air Corps leather flight jacket from World War II. The jacket has silk inserts, called blood chits or rescue flags, with information printed in French, Thai, Lao, Chinese, Korean, Annamese and Japanese. They state that the wearer is an American whose plane has crashed, is an enemy of the Japanese and that the American government will compensate anyone who rescues him and returns him safely to Allied military control.

The Charleston Museum is 360 Meeting Street. For information, www.charlestonmuseum.org or 843-722-2996.

Photo: sean money

Red Cross uniform, World War I. Charleston artist Anna Heyward Taylor (1879–1956) was one of the first South Carolina women to serve in the Red Cross during the war. She was in France for 18 months and this was her uniform. Courtesy of the Charleston (S.C.) Museum.

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