In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

The Maine Historical Society Historic Dress Collection

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.

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.