In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

The Maine Historical Society Historic Dress Collection

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Narrative by Jacqueline Field, textile and dress historian

Maine Historical Society’s Historic Dress Collection is an amalgamation of primarily donated garments accumulated by the Society since the organization’s founding in 1822. Initially specializing in clothing from the early to mid-nineteenth century, the collection was added to by an extensive acquisition of late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century dress acquired from Westbrook College in 1993, as well as more recent individual donations. As of 2020, the MHS collection consists of approximately 3,000 pieces.

With few exceptions, the garments and accessories are associated with people who lived in Maine (often commemorating an aspect of family history) or were in some way connected to the state. Provenance may stem from the original owner, a family member or descendant, written documentation, maker labels, place of origin; or be established by other means. Garments predominantly identify as adult female, with some children’s and male items, including military uniforms. In 2018, support from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) Museums for America grant program facilitated item-level cataloguing, condition assessment, and rehousing of the garments in the collection, as well as dramatically enhancing access by photographing the garments and preparation of this online portal conveying an overview of the collection.

Where larger institutions tend to focus on luxurious high fashions, the MHS Historic Dress Collection, in common with most fellow regional organizations, is centered on dress worn by the modestly better off, the middling, and upper middle-class population. As is the case at MHS, such collections always contain a significant proportion of special occasion garments and little in the way of every day regular dress, which tends to be considered not worth saving by its wearers, and discarded. Plain ordinary dress and working clothes worn by the financially less well to do, scarcely survive. Well used, repaired, passed on or repurposed, historically they were often reduced to rags or discarded.