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Stitching History Exhibition Ties Together History and Humanity

Blog by student Meg McMahon, x’17

In 1997, letters posted 1939 Prague were discovered in Milwaukee. They were written by a young Jewish couple hoping to escape German occupation with the help of an American relative living in Wisconsin. Included in the letters were fashion sketches and an appeal to employ seamstress Hedwig “Hedy” Strnad. Hedy did not survive the Holocaust, but more than 70 years later her hopes came to life in the exhibition “Stitching History from the Holocaust” held fall 2016 in the Ruth Davis Design Gallery, UW-Madison.

“You may imagine that we have a great interest of leaving Europe as soon as possible because there is no possibility of getting a position in this country,” wrote Paul Strnad, Hedy’s husband, to his cousin in Milwaukee, 1939.

Strnad Stitching History From The Holocaust
Hedy & Paul Strnad 1939
Soyeon Shim correct size1
Soyeon Shim

One visit to the Jewish Museum Milwaukee was all it took and Soyeon Shim, Dean of the School of Human Ecology was determined Hedy’s story must come to campus to educate and inspire students. In partnership with the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, the Center for Jewish Studies and private support, the exhibit as a whole serves as an example of what happens when human suffering is ignored and is a testament to the incalculable loss of the Holocaust.

“Hedy’s is a personal story, but it represents something much greater. Along with the millions of human lives extinguished as a result of the Holocaust, there was an immeasurable loss of talent and creativity.”—Jewish Museum Milwaukee

Eight dresses and accessories from Hedy’s original sketches were created for the show using historically accurate styles and techniques. Interlaced into the exhibition is the companion show “Inspired by Hedy” that spotlights the creations by SoHE students. “The exhibition provided an exceptional opportunity to bring together an individual story and historic fashion for our students in the Textiles and Fashion Design program,” stated Sherry Harlacher, Director, Center for Textiles and Design.

“Having handmade dresses was not limited to the wealthy. While many people sewed their own clothes for everyday wear, most people relied on dressmakers and tailors like Hedy to create their finer clothing.”—Adapted from Jewish Museum Milwaukee What do Hedwig Strnad’s Designs Reveal? by Beverly Gordon, professor emerita, School of Human Ecology.

“Inspired by Hedy” Student Exhibition
Student companion show Stitching History from the Holocaust
Student design.

To make their Hedy-inspired designs, students sought the resources of the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection to research textile and design methods from that time period in Europe. Students in the course “Draping through Time” used fashion illustration, pattern-making techniques, and garment construction, while also learning more about how fascism and racism in Europe resulted in broken families and intellectual losses. “Our students built on a legacy of a woman whose work was never fully realized until the present day. They were able to call on a range of textile, cultural and historical knowledge to conceptualize and execute designs that taught them valuable technical skills and historical background,” commented SoHE’s Dean Soyeon Shim.

“[It] really aligns with the Center’s mission to leverage the Gallery as an active “lab” for student participation, growth and development, and as a dynamic learning place for visitors across a broad community,” explained Harlacher.


About the Ruth Davis Design Gallery

The Ruth Davis Design Gallery holds exhibitions that relate to the processes and results of design. Together we encourage research, education and outreach by bringing together the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection, the Design Gallery and Ruth Ketterer Harris Library, as well as undergraduate and graduate programs in Design Studies.

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