Lounging in Masonic Style

2005_042a-bDP1DB.tif This bathrobe, or dressing gown, from the late 20th century, is one of my favorite objects in the National Heritage Museum collection. So, when I was working on the checklist for our new exhibition, Inspired by Fashion: American Masonic Regalia, I knew I had to include it!

With nearly one million members by 1900, American Freemasonry offered – and has continued to offer – a tempting market for many vendors. Masons not only purchase regalia and costumes for their meetings, rituals and events, they also buy clothing and other accessories that identify them as members. This bathrobe’s fabric is decorated with perhaps the best-known Masonic symbol – the square and compasses, which signifies reason and faith.

Have you ever seen another bathrobe like this one? If you are a Mason, do you have favorite non-lodge clothing with Masonic symbols? Let us know in a comment below.

Masonic bathrobe, 1960-1980, probably American, Collection of the National Heritage Museum, Museum Purchase, 2005.042a-b. Photograph by David Bohl.

Exhibition Curator to Trace the Fashionable Roots of Masonic Regalia, 10/29

Join the Museum's Director of Collections Aimee Newell, Ph.D, for a tour of the exhibition, “Inspired by Fashion: American Masonic Regalia,” on Saturday, October 29 at 2 p.m. Newell, curator of the exhibition, will trace the fashion antecedants behind traditional Masonic costumes and regalia.

2008-039-27Popular television programs and movies have been known to poke fun at fraternal groups by featuring characters that belong to made-up fraternities with goofy names and even funnier hats and costumes. Do you remember Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble who were members of the “Royal Order of Water Buffaloes” on The Flintstones cartoon? Even among Freemasons, Masonic costume has been perceived as weird, funny or outlandish.

And, indeed, Masonic regalia can have an element of wackiness. But, we may think the same thing about the clothing we see in historic prints, paintings, and photographs from the 1700s and 1800s. Even people of the era reacted to what they perceived as the extremes of fashion by publishing cartoons and satires. Then, as now, fashion itself was as wacky, if not more so, than the regalia worn by Masonic groups.

Furthermore, when we start to look more closely, comparing Masonic costumes and photographs with clothing and images from the same time periods, we can see that regalia manufacturers often took their cues from fashion houses. Come and see garments and images from the Museum’s collection that demonstrate the four different design sources for Masonic garments – contemporary fashion, the military, Orientalism, and theater. Learn how there have always been connections between everyday style and Masonic fashion!

To participate in the gallery tour, meet Aimee Newell in the “Inspired by Fashion” gallery at 2 p.m. For more information, please call the Museum reception desk at 781 861-6559 or visit our website.

Image credit:

George S. Anderson, Grand Commander, Masonic Knights Templar of Georgia, 1860-1869. Smith and Motes, Atlanta, Georgia. National Heritage Museum, gift in memory of Jacques Noel Jacobsen, 2008.039.27.

Another Mystery to Be Solved...

2009_022DP1 In 2009, the National Heritage Museum was given a fez for its collection. Normally, we consider the prospective gift of a fez very carefully, because we are fortunate to have an extensive collection of these regalia items and we try not to collect objects that duplicate our existing holdings. However, this fez was unusual. As you can see in the photo to the left, it is green and embroidered with a camel and the words “Caliphs of Bagdad.”

As I cataloged it in our computerized database, I did some research trying to determine what group might have used it originally. Unfortunately, I could not find any information about when or where it came from and the donor could only tell me that it was passed down in his wife’s family. So, in November 2009, I turned to the readers of The Northern Light, the quarterly magazine of the Scottish Rite Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, U.S.A., and asked for their help with identifying it.

I received a number of responses, including several that offered plausible leads. A reader from Springfield, Massachusetts, told me that the Association of Shrine Oriental Bands of North America has a subsidiary group of Past Presidents called the Caliphs, but admitted that he never saw a fez for that specific group. A man from New Jersey asked how I knew that this fez was Masonic. And, as I was quick to tell him, I do not know if this fez is Masonic.  It may well have been used by a non-Masonic fraternal group.

Indeed, several readers suggested that it might come from other groups. One mentioned the Phi Delta Kappa fraternity explaining that the group often tried to come up with new ideas to promote interest over the years and that this fez might be one of those ideas. A Pennsylvania reader called in to tell me about the Princes of Bagdad, a group associated with the Knights of Malta, but research into their logo did not turn up any similarities. And, a reader from Iowa suggested that perhaps the fez was associated with the fraternal group, the Order of Camels, which was founded in Milwaukee in 1920. If anyone knows of regalia from that group, I would love to hear about it or see a photograph.

Perhaps the most exciting response to my query was the arrival in the mail of a second green “Caliphs of Bagdad” fez! A reader from Pennsylvania had received the fez from a friend thirty years previously and generously decided to donate it to the Museum (while we try not to collect multiple copies of the same item, we often make an exception with textile items because it is helpful to have a second piece that can rotate into an exhibition and protect them both from overexposure to the lighting in the gallery). Unfortunately, like the donor of the first fez, this donor did not know where his friend had originally found the fez.

From my perspective, two of the leads I received were the most plausible. The first came from two different Northern Light readers, one from Michigan and one from Ohio, who called in and told me that they knew of green fezzes being awarded as honorary gifts in their respective communities. One man said that it was the Knights of Columbus that did this, while the other cited an example of a Shrine Temple doing the same. The second came from a reader in New Jersey who tracked down a newspaper account of the 1937 Shrine convention in Detroit, Michigan. That article, from the June 23, 1937, issue of The Detroit News reads “The Chicago unit, the largest delegation, was next with a pink and white striped group of caliphs drawing a golden sphinx and a live camel and a band of 110 musicians wearing white and green and flying yellow pennants…” A green and yellow fez seems like it might have been just the right headwear for this group.

What do you think? Have you ever seen a fez like this? Do you know when and where it was originally worn? Please let us know by leaving a comment below.

Fez, early 1900s, National Heritage Museum collection, gift of Stanley A. McCollough, 2009.022. Photograph by David Bohl.


Inspired by Fashion: American Masonic Regalia

Devil Costume If you ever watched Happy Days on TV, you probably remember the funny hat that Mr. Cunningham would put on to go to his Leopard Lodge meetings. For decades, popular television programs and movies have poked fun at fraternal groups by having characters belong to made-up organizations with goofy names and wild hats and costumes. Members and non-members alike have often perceived Masonic costume as weird, funny or outlandish. And, garments like the red knitted devil costume seen here seem pretty strange. One of the most unusual costumes in the National Heritage Museum collection, the devil suit was used by Scottish Rite Masons in Rochester, New York, to perform the 19th Degree. The degree explores the perennial conflict between good and evil. The Spirit of Evil character required a “Satanic costume of red,” like this one.

But, when we look at prints, paintings and photographs from the 1700s and 1800s, we also think that some of the clothing in those images is pretty weird and funny too. And, when we compare the clothing to Masonic regalia, we can see that perhaps it was not as outlandish as it now seems to us. Often, regalia manufacturers took their cues from contemporary fashion houses.

The National Heritage Museum’s new exhibition, “Inspired by Fashion: American Masonic Regalia,” uses clothing and images from the Museum’s collection to trace the inspiration behind Masonic regalia and costume. Each section explores a different source – contemporary fashion, the military, Orientalism, and theater – in order to show the connections between everyday style and fraternal fashion.

Scottish Rite Freemasons, the same group that founded and continues to support the Museum, are known for their elaborate theatrical degree ceremonies, which became popular during the early 1900s. They may have been partially inspired by the craze for historical pageantry that began around 1900. People across the country had begun putting on elaborate plays about their town’s history. Like the Scottish Rite degree ceremonies, these productions offered a shared sense of values, built a collective story of the community, and helped to create an identity for participants and audience alike.Degree Night

The painting shown to the right, Degree Night at the Robing Room, captures a backstage scene at a Scottish Rite degree ceremony. The artist, Frank A. Stockwell (1890-1970), was both a commercial artist and a Scottish Rite Mason with firsthand knowledge of the group’s rituals. After his death, his brothers remembered him for “his dramatic roles in many of the degrees.”

“Inspired by Fashion: American Masonic Regalia” is on view through March 10, 2012 at the National Heritage Museum, 33 Marrett Road, Lexington, Massachusetts. The Museum is open Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. For more information, please visit our website.

Scottish Rite 19th Degree Devil Costume, 1940-1960, American, National Heritage Museum collection, Gift of Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite Valley of Rochester, New York, 2004.017.1. Photograph by David Bohl.

Degree Night at the Robing Room, 1935-1939, Frank A. Stockwell (1890-1970), Buffalo, New York, Loaned by Buffalo Consistory, Valley of Buffalo, New York, A.A.S.R., EL2006.001.2. Photograph by David Bohl.