Fashion with dark history given bright future

SHIPPENSBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – In honor of Juneteenth Day, the celebration of the end of slavery, a memento from the Civil War made its way to the Midstate. The item with a dark history has a bright future, thanks to some experts at Shippensburg University.

Its home is among centuries of fashion from around the world, on display at the Fashion Archives and Museum of Shippensburg University.

And yet the most historic item is hidden in the back of Karin Bohleke’s studio.

“Two of the surviving costumes from the Civil War era,” Bohleke said. “They belonged to an actress Jeannie Gourlay.”

The museum director is tasked with preserving a moment of history.

“This piece is very frail,” Bohleke said, pulling out a giant, off-white skirt, which was tattered and faded. “And we still need to do conservation work on it.”

The costume is a reminder of a night that took our country decades to get over.

“She played a character named Mary Meredith the night of the Lincoln assassination at Ford’s Theater in Washington D.C. One of these costumes we believe is her costume from that night.”

Bohleke says it’s the only surviving garment from that night, to her knowledge.

“At one point, I think John Wilkes Booth shoved her, and I keep thinking,” Bohleke said. “Maybe his DNA is in here. That’s what got me.”

The costume came from Pike County.

“Jeannie Gourlay married and settled in the area,” Bohleke said. “It was her grandson who donated the costumes to his local historical society.”

The dress was brought to Shippensburg because Bohleke is one of just a handful of experts in the country so versed in 19th Century fashion.

“My mother started me knitting when I was three and embroidering when I was four,” she said.

It’s that expertise she used to recreate Jeannie Gourley’s other costume, a milk maid outfit, that was possibly on stage during the night of Lincoln’s assassination. The bodice is the only piece left, but Bohleke was able to use her knowledge of fashion at the time to recreate what she envisions made up its other elements.

The milk maid costume is already on display at the Pike County Historical Society.

“Everyone associates America’s greatest historical treasures with museums like the Smithsonian, when in fact most are in small places,” Bohleke said.

She never imagined it would be her small place, in a back room at Shippensburg University’s fashion archives.

“That was pretty incredible, touching history that’s this important,” she said.

If you’d like to visit the fashion archives for more historical garments, you can find information at fashionarchives.org.

If you’d like to donate to the Jeannie Gourley costume conservation efforts, contact the Pike County Historical Society.

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