History on Display: Beautiful Clothes and Ugly Actions

When I put a History on Display post on my calendar for today, I assumed I was going to write about the exhibit on Mainboucher:  a boy from a modest background on Chicago’s West Side who became the first American-born couturier to make an international reputation.   One of my sisters was coming for a long weekend and the spark for the entire visit was Making Mainboucher. The exhibit is worth a visit.  The clothes are beautiful.  Mainboucher’s life was full of interesting twists.*  If you have any interest in fashion or even the social history of the second half of the twentieth century, it is worth a visit.  But it is a small exhibit and I don’t have a lot to say about it.

From a history buff perspective, the winner of the day was the exhibit down the hall: Spies, Traitors, and Saboteurs.  Subtitled Fear and Freedom in America, the exhibit looks at historical moments in which America has balanced the need for security with the need for civil liberties as a result of perceived threats from within its borders.  (Perceived being the critical word in several of these cases.)  The broad outlines of some, like the internment of Japanese residents in World War II, the McCarthy trials  of the Cold War era, and the Oklahoma city bombing, are well known.  Others are less familiar:  the role of American Loyalists** in the British capture of Washington DC in the War of 1812, the destruction of a munitions depot in New York Harbor by German secret agents aided by American collaborators in 1916, the anarchist scare after World War I and the violent raids unleashed by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer in retribution.***

The exhibit is even-handed in its treatment of events that were often rooted in fear and hatred.  The extremes of right and left are shown as equally ugly in their actions. Each event considered includes unexpected details.  (The fact that J. Edgar Hoover was against Japanese internment on the grounds that his people had already found all the Japanese spies on the West Coast surprised me.)  Interactive kiosks throughout the exhibit encourage the viewer to think about her own positions on the points where national security and civil liberty butt up against each other.

Spies, Traitors and Saboteurs is not an easy exhibit. (You might consider saving the Mainboucher exhibit as a mental palette cleanser.)  It is an important one.  The exhibit will be at the  Chicago History Museum through October, 2017.

*Among other things, he designed uniforms for the Navy’s WAVES in World War II.
**In this case, still loyal to the British.
***Coming soon to a blog post near you.

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