27-Star James K. Polk and George M. Dallas Campaign Parade Flag

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Smack in the middle of the 2016 presidential campaign, the George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum has mounted an exhibit of political paraphernalia made of fabric. (No, I didn’t know this was a thing, either.) The exhibit is well-timed—not just for appearing during the presidential election season but for echoing, across the span of centuries, some of 2016’s more contentious political themes. 

The flags, kerchiefs, and other fabric bric-a-brac in Your Next President… ! The Campaign Art of Mark and Rosalind Shenkman were often held aloft at parades that were lit by kerosene torches. They date from between 1819 and 1912. 

A number of specimens spotlight the long history of political myth-making, such as the dubious portrayal of Virginia aristocrat William Henry Harrison as living in a log cabin and drinking from a barrel of cider, and suspiciously skinny portrayal of William Howard Taft. The textiles on view more successfully invoke the heroic progenitor of the Republic, George Washington, than the stern-visaged Woodrow Wilson on a pillowcase. 

Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison, for their part, propelled themselves into the White House thanks in part to the surprisingly long-lived fad of politically themed bandannas, almost always printed in a deep red hue that presages the 1980s headgear of Bruce Springsteen. 

It should come as no surprise that Mr. Macho himself, Theodore Roosevelt, rocked the bandanna the best. Among the examples on display is one that features the iconography of a grizzly bear, a disembodied toothy grin and a full-antlered bull moose. 

The exhibit, however, includes an under-current of gravity, with pieces that dabble in immigration restrictions, protectionism, political reform, economic uncertainty and patriotism. Pointedly, the exhibit opens with a flag-like banner touting the Native American Party—not a party for American Indians, but rather an 1840s-era nativist precursor of the Know-Nothing Party. 

Through April 10 at the Textile Museum, 701 21st St. NW. (202-994-5200). Mon-Wed-Fri 11:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m., Sat 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun 1 p.m.-5 p.m.