In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Historic Clothing Collection


The tubular line silhouette returned after the First World War. Two ankle length straight dresses in the MHS collection straddle the war years and early 1920s. The first is a lavender and white striped sailor-collared cotton dress, probably worn by Mrs. Adeline (Bond) Rines or one of her sisters. The second dress is a brown satin, trimmed with gold metallic lace, and two long tasseled tabs that emphasize the vertical design. By 1920, the above ankle length, straight-skirt suits, with slightly dropped waists advertised by stores such as New York’s Altmans would also have been available throughout Maine, but are not yet represented in the collection.

In the 1920s, consumption of rayon, the first chemically made fiber, steadily increased. Initially discovered in the late 1880s, rayon is the product of a chemical process that converts cellulosic (plant) material into long filaments. However, development and manufacture was inconsequential until after WWI. Within three years of the war's end in 1918, large chemical plants in southern states (originally developed for military purposes) were quickly adapted for rayon production. Rayon filament was delivered to textile mills, wound onto cones, ready to thread onto looms and be made into fabrics marketed as artificial silk. The name "rayon" was adopted in the mid-1920s. In 1930, the Androscoggin Mill in Lewiston was equipped with new looms to handle rayon, and became one of the country’s largest rayon fabric manufacturers.

Inexpensive rayon competed with, and steadily displaced more costly silk, contributing to the decline of the American silk industry. Rayon was manufactured into many kinds of woven fabrics for dresses and lingerie, and fine knits for women’s and men’s underwear. Women with even the most modest pocket books could afford dainty silk-like rayon underwear and nightdresses, as seen in Sears catalogues. An example of rayon intimates in the MHS collection is a lace trimmed pink, silk crepe-like rayon night dress associated with Mrs. Marguerite Waterman Cobb. Perhaps it is preserved in its new, unworn state because it was a gift or the wrong size.

Clothing of the early 1920s is characteristically loose with waists at hip level, and longish or just above ankle-length skirts. Shortened by 1924, skirts were shortest about 1926-27, and lengthened again by 1929. The new leg-exposing skirt length was a true revolution. Historically women's legs were always covered, and out of the common gaze. As skirt lengths rose, neutral, light gray and flesh colored stockings became very important, with silk the most desirable, and cheaper rayon and mercerized cotton alternatives.

The ideal shapeless tube-like figure, was sometime called boyish or androgynous. Underwear was simplified to avoid bulkiness under the new slim garments. Corseting and clever dressmaking helped shape or conceal natural contours. For example, Helen Little Hamm's tan chiffon dress, with an uneven knee-length hemline features a low-slung swag of brown velvet draped from one hip to the other, and held with a gathered length of trailing fabric to help distract from a "faulty" figure.

Not to distract or disguise, but to give extra room to move, concealed gussets at both sides retain the straight silhouette of Portland’s Marguerite Waterman Cobb's exquisite beige satin, chiffon, and silk-net short slim dress. For the same reason - room to move - but in this case to work, the straight skirt on a plain khaki cotton household maid’s dress features side seam gusset pleats.

Representing day wear there is a mature lady’s long sleeved brown heavy silk dress with decorative trimmings and a knife pleated knee length skirt front; Anne F. Wilson's red long sleeved early rayon dress featuring pieced art deco design construction; a velvet black with cream polka dots double breasted long sleeved tunic with diamanté buttons, and skirt attached to an underbodice; a coordinated thin tussah dress and heavy tussah three quarter length belted coat travel outfit; and a long, collared, short sleeved, tube-shaped dress entirely covered with red and green machine embroidery.

Knee length party dresses include a royal blue solid beaded sleeveless chemise; a simple cream chiffon (possibly wedding) dress, short sleeved with a delicate bodice motif embroidered in tiny pearls and beads; and a purple chiffon chemise with a hemline of velveteen handkerchief points. Lengthening skirts of the later 1920s are illustrated by a a red and gold metallic lace two-tiered dress from Bergdorf Goodman's (NY) with a longer skirt back; and an ankle length tube shaped greenish gold lamé with a beaded clasp on the wide hip sash.

Perhaps a green all over beaded mid-calf length dress is the most striking in the 1920s collection. Its color, Nile Green (named for the Egyptian river), and hemline palmette designs provide an example of the prevailing Egyptian design influence that stemmed from Howard Carter’s 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb. The dress was acquired and worn in Paris by Mrs. Howard Burr (formerly Cécile de Wasilowska of Poland), grandmother of Cecile P. Carver of Scarborough.