In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

The Maine Historical Society Historic Dress Collection

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Major Judkin's Cape, ca. 1835
Major Judkin's Cape, ca. 1835
Maine Historical Society

Rarity makes examples of old work clothes, and what they tell us, among the most valued objects in a collection. At MHS that is certainly the case with, for example, a tattered wool country cloak found at a farm in Standish (pictured at left). By the same token, rarity, elite fashions which do not often find their way into modest scale organizations, also occupy a special place in collections. A group of turn of the twentieth century couture caliber gowns from Lewiston; a 1930s ‘Delphic’ gown and others by Jessie Franklin Turner; and a 1970s Geoffrey Beene evening dress in the MHS collection speak of particular individuals, and a segment of Maine inhabitants with life styles beyond the Maine average.

At one time in the hierarchy of historic objects, dress was relegated a low status. It was typical museum practice to categorize garments as textiles or decorative objects of little significance. It is highly likely that the initial MHS accumulation of items were regarded in such a way. Only in very recent times has there been recognition of the value of a systematic approach to the research, study, and exhibition of clothing from points of view of, for instance, social history, material culture, aesthetics, technology, production, consumption, state and local history. Perhaps most significant is recognition that changes in dress unconsciously reflect change in the spirit of the era.

To paraphrase prominent dress historian Anne M. Buck, when surviving specimens of dress are studied in the same way as other material evidence of civilization, clothing takes its place as part of the fabric of local and national history. In this way objects in the MHS Historic Dress Collection make an invaluable contribution to our understanding of domestic, social and many other aspects of Maine’s past and ongoing story, as seen in 21st century MHS exhibitions: State of Mind: Becoming Maine (2020), Holding up the Sky: Wabanaki people, culture, history, and art (2019), Designing Acadia (2017), World War I and the Maine Experience (2017), Fashionable Maine: early twentieth century clothing (2016), and Dressing Up, Standing Out, Fitting In: Adornment and Identity in Maine (2011).

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, MA-30-18-0288-18.