Dressing Up, Standing Out, Fitting In: Adornment and Identity in Maine

I supposed of course a party in Bangor would be considerable and I dressed Myself in My best and put on a pair of penellor boots… –– John Martin, Bangor, 1845

Brooch with Don Juan VI miniature, Portugal, 1824

Brooch with Don Juan VI miniature, Portugal, 1824

Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society

Text by Candace Kanes

Images from Maine Historical Society

A piece of amethyst-laden jewelry, a gold-tipped cane, brocade wedding shoes, a beaver-fur top hat, a tortoise-shell hair comb – any one might be the centerpiece for a particular dress-up occasion.

Items of adornment like these communicate social status and identity, celebrate a special occasion, and reinforce the way we want to be seen.

In any era, in any community, most attire falls within a relatively narrow range of styles and materials. Historians often date photographs or paintings based on small details of adornment such as hat styles or design of sleeves or lapels. Fitting in seems to be a dominant impulse.

Yet, communicating difference – and "standing out" – also is common. The style might be the same, but a rare piece of jewelry or a coat made of fine fabric could separate the wearer from the rest of the crowd.

Adornment – from clothing accessories – reveals the images people seek to project and, often, what they and their communities value.

Collected over time, the objects in this exhibit represent the changing experience of people in Maine, not only as individual items of adornment, but as keepsakes saved and passed on to the Maine Historical.

These collections offer insight into what it has meant for Mainers in various eras to dress up or present their best selves.

This online exhibit is based on an exhibit curated by Candace Kanes that was on display at the Maine Historical Society Museum from June 2011 to May 2012. The exhibit sponsors were Elsie A. Brown Fund and Spectrum Medical Group.