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Willa Cather Foundation - Red Cloud Nebraska (NE)

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Willa Cather’s “Hiawatha Dress” On Exhibit

Willa Cather’s “Hiawatha Dress” On Exhibit

The "Hiawatha Dress" is part of the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial Collection
Willa Cather, c. 1881, Charlotte Shaw Collection, National Willa Cather Center
Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Just a few weeks remain to see Willa Cather’s “Hiawatha Dress,” currently on exhibit in American Bittersweet at the National Willa Cather Center. Cather was photographed in the dress as a child circa 1881, at the G.W. Davis studio in Washington, D.C. The unlabeled dress was likely homemade; many of the seams are machine sewn, but the buttonholes are handworked, with overlapping lace flounces that seem custom-made to accommodate a growing child. The lace, in fact, is whip-stitched to the bodice by hand and in such a manner as to prevent the use of the bottom-most buttonhole, suggesting that the dress is remade from other garments.

But why is it called the “Hiawatha Dress”? Cather sometimes performed at church functions, giving recitations. The Red Cloud Chief occasionally called her “the child elocutionist” for her gifted performances. Longfellow's "The Song of Hiawatha" is said to have been a favorite piece, with the young Cather performing the long poem with a bow and arrow, dropping to one knee at the poem’s crucial moment, to pantomime the shooting of an arrow.

The gauzy lace dress, last exhibited in 2010, was part of the recent collections transfer from History Nebraska. Due to its fragility, special care has been taken to display the garment without putting stress on any of the seams. In order to preserve the dress for another 150 years, however, we will return the dress to archival storage on August 30. Be sure to see it while you have a chance!