Fashioning Her Future From the Past

Sophomore Emily Bach (right) works with Dr. Karin Bohleke (left) and fellow intern Lydia Blaza at the Maryland Historical Society.

Sophomore Emily Bach (right) works with Dr. Karin Bohleke (left) and fellow intern Lydia Blaza at the Maryland Historical Society.

I cannot begin to tell you how sophis-ticated Emily’s presentation was. No one could believe she was an undergraduate. She was the talk of the museum.
— Alexandra Deutsch, chief curator at the Maryland Historical Society.

By Katie (Paxson) Hammaker ’93

One of Emily Bach’s first educational expe-riences at Shippensburg University was a work-study position she accepted with the Fashion Archives and Museum (FA&M) on campus. 

A gem on campus, FA&M houses an extensive and impressive collection of period clothing. Staff and volunteers work to create themed displays that are open to students and the public. 

Bach, a history major from Stevensville, Maryland, was responsible for the han-dling and storage of the historic garments and cataloging details about each item in a museum database. Little did Bach know that these seemingly mundane tasks would lead her to the opportunity of a lifetime.

“Emily brings many gifts and talents to the applied history field. She has a great appreciation for the clothing artifacts in the Fashion Archives and Museum collection and is always excited to learn more about them and the lives and times of the people who wore them. With her attention to detail and her fascination for the past, she will make a great museum professional,” said Dr. Karin Bohleke, director of the FA&M. 

Bohleke was so impressed that she helped Bach obtain an internship with the Maryland Historical Society Museum and Library in Baltimore this past summer.

Bach’s main task at the historical society was to assist in the movement of a 6,000-piece garment collection from the historic Enoch Pratt House in Baltimore. 

“The Pratt House has suffered water damage and other internal damage over time,” Bach explained. “These are terrible conditions for historic garments. Some of the boxes with garments have water damage, which caused mold to grow on them. There also was bug infestation.” 

The collection spans more than two centuries, with pieces ranging from 1740 to the 1960s. It includes clothing and accessories for men, women, and children, from everyday attire to gowns worthy of presentation in a king’s court. 

Bach personally handled about 400 items. She and two other interns transported each garment to a climate-controlled workshop. They carefully cleaned the garments to remove dust, dirt, and insects before repack-ing them in conservation safe boxes. Bach then prepared detailed reports of the gar-ments and their condition, with particular note of any damage, for entry in the database. 

One of Bach’s favorite pieces was a dress worn to the Court of Emperor Napoleon III in 1854. The dress has a three-tiered skirt, made from cream-colored silk with blush rose pink velvet polka dots. 

Bach also uncovered a skirt and match-ing cape of blue velvet and lace trim that belonged to Mary Washington Keyser, a relative of George Washington. 

The internship also illustrated to Bach the evolution of fashion and how clothing reflects social changes of an era. 

“Riding habits are one example,” she said. “We found some from the late 1800s. They were commonly frilly and fancy, and worn with expensive jewels. But in the new century, the outfits became simpler in design as women sought freedom from the expectation of always wearing feminine dress. Some riding habits from this era even included pants.”

In addition to clothing, the collection con-tains numerous fashion accessories. One of Bach’s favorites was a maternity corset from the 1850s. Many women from that era wore them, Bach said, but for practical reasons. 

“Working women tried to hide pregnancy so they would not be fired from their jobs in factories. Wealthy women would wear them to avoid the nine months of bedrest that most physicians recommended, because they wanted to continue entertain-ing and going to events.” 

Bach reported her experiences and high-lighted several of the garments in a blog she wrote throughout her internship. 

Most of the garments will return to storage, but some are being included in a Civil War exhibit at the historical society.

“I helped select Civil War dresses from Pratt House for the display,” Bach said. “We had to work hard to make sure the exhibit is historically accurate. It required a lot of research.” 

Bach’s internship concluded in August with a presentation of her work to museum staff, volunteers, and other guests. 

“I cannot begin to tell you how sophisticated Emily’s presentation was,” said Alexandra Deutsch, chief curator at the historical society. “No one could believe she was an undergraduate. She was the talk of the museum.” 

The staff was so impressed with Bach’s work, that they invited her to return next summer. 
Now a sophomore, Bach continues to work for the FA&M. 

Her experiences have been incredibly beneficial. “I’ve learned so many things,” she said. “It is so different from classroom learning. The hands-on experience was extremely helpful, even just learning and using the terminology of the trade. It was an amazing experience.” 
Bach plans to pursue a career in museum conservation and education.