Skirts and Gowns: how students formed an exhibition to commemorate Sewanee women

In the Skirts and Gowns exhibit, a newspaper clipping from the Chattanooga Times reads, “She’s Definitely Given Up Using Hairspray Ever Since She’s Taken Up Firefighting.” Photo by Claire Crow (C’21).

By Claire Crow
Executive Staff

While most of the celebrations commemorating 50 years of women at Sewanee may have seemed crunched in to Homecoming weekend, Skirts and Gowns, an exhibit that recognizes Sewanee’s legacy of women, will remain open for viewing through February 2020. 

Located in the University Archives, this exhibition displays the history of women in Sewanee and the University in the last 150 years through a variety of artifacts. From important documents and newspaper clippings, to items such as cookbooks, pincushions, and novels written by Sewanee women, these pieces shed light on community members’ lives, details regarding the University’s shift to coeducation, and the struggles and triumphs that came with such transitions.

Dr. Alison J. Miller, assistant professor of art history and exhibition supervisor, notes that Skirts and Gowns is remarkable for the way that some of it’s artifacts “use language and frameworks that are offensive to us today, and which bear witness to the struggles women have faced both at the University and in society.”

Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects about Skirts and Gowns is that it was researched and curated by Sewanee students. Each student in Miller’s introduction to museum studies course during the Easter Semester 2019 hand picked two items to research and display. Course participant Sarah Covington (C’20) reflects on her experience conducting her own research for the exhibition, stating, “I learned so much beyond what is presented in the exhibit itself. I learned a lot about what goes into putting on an exhibit, how the archives work, and about our University’s history.”

One of Covington’s artifacts on display is a Sewanee Student Handbook from 1969-74. She became particularly interested in this piece because of how much “the rules changed from year to year.” In her research process, Covington recalls how fascinated she became with the handbook’s rhetoric about dress code. She notes, “for the men it has a detailed description of the expected class dress, but for the women, it only has a line or two about what is expected for them.” 

Another prominent section of Skirts and Gowns covers the beginning of Greek Life for women on the Mountain. Professor of English and former Sewanee student Dr. Virginia Craighill (C’82) made her mark as a founding member of Theta Pi, Sewanee’s third sorority. After viewing the Skirts and Gowns exhibit, Dr. Cragihill shared some of her thoughts about sororities and female spaces at Sewanee in the 80s. 

“Some friends from Theta Kappa Pi (TKP) asked several of us to start a new sorority in ’79 because there was a growing need for more. At the time, it felt like there was no true organization for women on the Mountain, and so sororities became a way for women to have a collective space,” stated Criaghill. 

Looking back on University life for a female student in the early 80s, Dr. Craighill remarks how many vital resources women ultimately lacked. “We were generally very happy here, but I think we repressed a lot of things while we were students. There was no women’s health center, no obgyn, no nurse, so women were pretty much on their own.” 

However, out of this lack of resources emerged a close-knit community of female students who remained each others biggest supporters. “We were very close. In the end, we had each other,” Craighill finished. 

These glimpses into women’s experiences throughout the years are just a handful of what is held at Skirts and Gowns. Make sure to visit the University Archives before February 2020 to engage with a more detailed and immersive history of Sewanee women.