In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Historic Clothing Collection


The Great Depression changed the mood of the times, and of fashion and fabrics. The boyish, shapeless, twenties style disappeared, replaced by a more feminine silhouette and longer skirts. By the end of the 1920s, rayon had been improved and developed to make a wide range of pleasing and modest priced fabrics. Silk still held a place in fashion, but less expensive rayon, perceived as being "modern," came into its own in the 1930s.

Just how attractive and fashionable rayon could be is seen in the comfortable easy elegance of a white woven, medium weight fluid rayon day dress and jacket. The simple dress features a front closure with four large flat pearl buttons, waist level buckled belt, and a straight skirt with a single neat pleat falling below knee at one side. An easy fitting three-quarter sleeved unlined edge to edge jacket completes the ensemble. Perhaps worn with white wide-heeled shoes and a neat little hat, set at the side of the head, the suit ensemble resembles those seen in many 1930s photographs.

Other daytime ensembles in the collection include a plain yellow-beige, slim faile rayon mid-calf dress with brown polka-dot spotted fabric trimming, and a coordinating unlined jacket and scarf.

Early examples of the era's wide shoulder fashion are found among a group of garments by important New York designer, Jessie Franklin Turner. Of high style and high quality, they count among the most significant items in the collection. The three garments made by Turner (active 1923-1942) are associated with Margaret Payson of Falmouth, known locally as "Miss Margaret." Turner specialized in robes and elegant understated evening gowns, fitted and made for specific clients. A dusty pink knit-like woven wool fabric robe with padded shoulders, and side tie closure features luxurious magenta satin lapels, cuffs, and lining relieved by a horizontal band of sage green that matches the tie belt.

A shoulder padded, high necked olive green, long sleeved dinner dress is a study in subtle cut and fit, from unexpected multiple-pieced sleeves to the loose bodice pleat and other features. A third example, a long sleeveless pale green, is edged with transparent beads and features narrow neck-to-hem puckered pleating, somewhat reminiscent of the Fortuny "Delphic" pleating tradition. All three garments are labelled "Jessie Franklin Turner, 410 Park Avenue, New York," the business address she moved to 1936, suggesting the garments date from about this time.

Jessie Franklin Turner was one of the many women who, from the beginnings of the American fashion industry in the 1920s, found opportunities in fashion fields such as designing, advertising, and journalism. Some of the longest established and best-known names are Hattie Carnegie and Nettie Rosenstein, the latter of which is credited with popularizing the 'little black dress' in the United States.

Fashions from the Great Depression years range from attractive basic day, to evening wear inspired by the cinema. The large number and variety of long 1930s dresses preserved in the collection are a reminder that it was still customary to wear long dresses for special, evening and theater occasions. Full-length Hollywood influenced gowns include a black chiffon with a spaghetti-strap bodice ornamented with a diamanté broach, flared hem skirt, and short sleeved little top trimmed with white lace.

Among other representative examples there is a slim fully lined, black and multi-colored floral print chiffon with a shoulder cape; a tubular black rayon crepe with a bright pink belt, pink decorative bodice motif and skirt feature at one side; a square shouldered yellow textured heavy rayon crepe with a beaded inset waistband and drape detail; and a rust wide shouldered textured heavy rayon crepe with a sequined bodice styled with an open back and left hip drape detail.

Two late 1930s gowns with virtually the same styling, chosen by two very different women, from two different walks of life, demonstrate the democratic, equalizing nature of modern fashion, as well as the extent of fashion media and movie influence. For her 1938 wedding to her husband to be, Greek immigrant Peter Spanos at Portland’s Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, Bessie Rodis wore a wedding gown made of white rayon satin with machine lace detailing, and featuring and a striking, very wide panel of machine lace inset at the waist.

Of a similar date, Portland’s Mary (Rines) Thompson owned a peach rayon full length georgette evening dress with machine lace detailing and featuring and the same striking very wide panel of machine lace inset at the waist. Mary Rines Thompson's father Henri Rines founded Maine Broadcasting System, which became one of the most powerful communication outfits in its day.

Rounding out the era, a full length, princess seamed black velvet coat, possibly dating to the late 1930s to early 1940s, with a face encircling collar, long balloon cuffed sleeves, and a frogging closure features a worn label stamped, "The Coat and Suit Industry" encircled with the words "National Recovery Board," indicating the coat was made in accordance with the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. This legislation regulated working age, minimum wage and work conditions.

Coat label, ca. 1938
Coat label, ca. 1938