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Historic Clothing Collection


The fashions of 1800-1805 are represented at Maine Historical Society by a small, but important group of slender gowns made of simple white cottons and plain muslins, with woven stripes, and embroidered sprigs. They feature high waists, narrow bodices, low drawstring necklines, and skirts with gathers at center back. Some gowns include trains, such as Lucia Wadsworth’s assembly dress, and some without, as seen in a straight hem gown from Buckfield.

Illustrating 1804 styling, a high waist, draw string, oval neck, puff sleeved, black gauze overdress is all that survives to record what Zilpah Wadsworth Longfellow wore in mourning for her brother, Henry Wadsworth, who was killed in naval action with Corsairs at Tripoli in September 1804. While the under-dress did not survive, the ensemble's shawl, bonnet and veil are part of the collections. Unfortunately, the pieces are too fragile at present to mount on a mannequin for display.

Over the next years, stylistic and decorative details began to encroach on the early simple and plain greco-style gowns, as may be observed in a delicate almost transparent, muslin dress with elongated soft puffed sleeves, trimmed with embroidered scalloped frills and a skirt embellished with a wide band of the exceptional white embroidery found on some imported India cottons. From its start, the tubular silhouette was aided by elongated corsets that smoothed the body and raised the bust.

Waists were at their highest between 1815 and 1820. Of three 1817-1822 slim silk crepe dresses, one from the Longfellow family is cream colored, features simple short sleeves, an extremely high waist, narrow inset waist band, and skirt smooth at front with gathers across the back. The waistline is not quite so high in the other two crepes. Their long loose sleeves are gathered or bunched into floppy puffs at the top, hinting of sleeve interest to come. The silk crepe may be the product of China trade.

As of 2020, the MHS collection includes no examples of 1820s colored cotton, plain or plaid gowns with the slightly flared, heavily embellished skirts and sleeves seen in fashion plates of the 1820s. Along this vein, however, there is a fine white satin gown with an undulating bias strip trimming the lower skirt, and applied satin leaf shapes adorning puff sleeves. Similar leaf motifs form a rounded puff encircling the upper sleeves of a detailed, very fine quality dress-maker made woven striped pink (now faded) silk dress with a spencer-like (jacket) bodice, an apron front skirt, and sets of flaring double pleats at the back. An applied wide wavy band of satin decorates the hemline.

Sally Holmes was the wife of Senator John Holmes, one of Maine's first senators. Her satin ball gown features the almost natural level waist of the 1820s. The wide waistband and puff sleeve cuffs are trimmed with the fashionable metallic silver embroidery of the day, and an elaborate chenille and metallic silver corsage embellishes the bodice. By the mid-1820s the most significant fashion features were lowered waists, back gathers spreading to the side, widened skirts, and gradually enlarging sleeves, which became known as gigots. Gigot is the French word for a leg of mutton, the shape sleeves resembled. Early gigots are seen on the plain beige silk wedding dress worn by Arcy Cary on September 3, 1829, and on a whitework trimmed cotton dress ca. 1828.