Friday, August 21, 2015

Kent State University Museum

by C.J. Chase

Last month, Debra Marvin wrote a piece for Inkwell titled Too Busy Researching to Write. But, but, but…research is the fun part. In fact, it was what led to my interest in historical fiction/historical romance in the first place. Reading allows a person to travel to far away places and times. Chances of my traveling to the nineteenth century in the next month? Zero. Chances of my traveling to England in the next month? I suppose technically it isn’t zero, but it might as well be. However, the chances of my mind traveling to nineteenth century England in a novel in the next month? Oh, that’s almost a sure thing.

I recently thought I should like to do some research on historical clothing, so I researched fashion museums. (Yep, I had to research my research.) The articles I found (such as this one) mostly listed museums in Paris and Milan and London and New York – you know, other places, with a zero percent chance of my visiting them on the next family vacation. But this CNN article about top fashion museums had a surprising addition: Kent State University Museum.

Kent State is in northeastern Ohio, and as I was headed to northwestern Pennsylvania this summer to visit the in-laws, I told the family we were going to make a detour one day. The museum is very reasonably priced: $5 for an adult admission. While there are a few pieces from the eighteenth century, most of the clothing dates from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and I’d say 80-90% of the displays (in the area where I focused, anyway) are women’s gowns. Many of the exhibits are arranged in such a way that you can see all sides of the dresses. And a cool feature is that most of the garments are not behind glass, so you can really see the fabrics without the glare and distortion of glass. (You still can’t touch though.)

I had brought my camera in the hopes of taking pictures. And then I discovered that photography requires advance approval. Oops! But my husband gamely asked the student at the admissions desk. Since the only pieces on display during our visit belong to Kent State, she told me I could take non-flash pictures. 

You can see this late-19th century gown from all angles.

The special exhibit running right now, “Inside Out: Revealing Clothes Hidden Secrets,” shows the insides of historical clothing. I hadn’t planned on a seamstress heroine, but I just might have to consider that for a future book. And I finally got an answer to an eternal debate on the Regency-era research (oh, look, that word again!) loop I belong to: yes, some men’s breeches of that time period did indeed have pockets.

I’d have happily stayed longer, but as the mother of an eight-year-old boy, I knew I wouldn’t have a lot of time. The museum is primarily targeted to people in the fashion industry, but I’d recommend it to historical authors who need a little inspiration. Just be certain to check about the photograph situation before you go.

If you can't get to northeast Ohio, check out the hundreds of photographs from the Kent State collection on the museum's Facebook page.


  1. CJ, I love finding museums, etc in places you'd never think to look.

    A case in point is small town Dugald, Manitoba where the Ladies Institute started having fashion shows in 1953. They ended up with so many donations, they opened their own museum in 1983. They kept growing and in 2007, they moved larger quarters in Winnipeg. This grass roots community project is now the Costume Museum of Canada.

    I wonder if more people would know about the Kent State U Museum if they added fashion as a sub name?

    Thanks for sharing this one. :)

  2. Anita, I'd have never in a million years thought of going to Kent State to look at historical clothing on my own. I didn't even know where Kent State was until I started looking into fashion museums. A name change might help. Or more publicity beyond the fashion design industry (which seems to be what they market to). I've never seen KSU mentioned on any writer/historical research loop.

  3. Ooh, CJ! I would absolutely love to go to a museum like this. How fun!

  4. I love checking out museums. They are so much fun! Thanks for sharing!


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