Henry Ford’s American Style and Spirit Exhibit Is About More Than Fashion

Clothing showcase glimpses into the lives of the Roddises, an upper-middle-class family who found success in the lumber and veneer industry

Previously home to a multi-generation, 250-piece collection of garments and accessories, the attic in the Marshfield, Wisconsin-based Roddis family estate was once bursting at the seams with untold stories.

So Jane Bradbury, a niece of the Roddis family, decided to let the items emerge from the attic, and reached out to The Henry Ford for a place to tell those stories.

The result: A large selection of items from the family’s collection, which dates from about 1850 to 1995, is now on public display in The Henry Ford’s American Style and Spirit exhibit.

Unlike many traditional clothing showcases, the exhibit glimpses into the lives of the upper-middle-class Roddis family, who found success in the lumber and veneer industry.

“Most exhibits of clothing focus on fashion, on construction, on style,” says Jeanine Head Miller, curator of domestic life at The Henry Ford. “We do make observations about those things, but the chief approach [of the exhibit] is through storytelling labels.”

Created in part by piecing together anecdotes found in family letters and photos, the labels tell the stories surrounding the more than 50 garments displayed in American Style and Spirit and how they connect to larger themes in American life.

A homemade fur-trimmed day dress created during the Great Depression and a green two-piece suit worn as a bridal outfit during a forbidden elopement touch on overcoming setbacks, while an evening dress worn during a junior prom and a dress with lace detailing that was worn on a cruise ship mark celebrations.

In line with the museum’s approach, attendees are also encouraged to reflect on their relationship with clothing while viewing the pieces, which hail from Marshall Fields, European shopping trips, small boutiques, and more.

“This family was a family that appreciated fine clothing and understood that the clothing told a story of history,” Head Miller says. “…Hopefully, as all of this has been presented, we’ve gotten people to think about the meaning of clothing in their own lives.”

Admittance to American Style and Spirit, which runs until April 2, is free with museum admission. For more information, visit thehenryford.org.