Fashionable Maine: early twentieth century clothing

Text by By Jacqueline Field
Images from Maine Historical Society's Costume Collection

Maine residents kept pace with the dramatic shift in women's dress that occurred during the short number of years preceding and immediately following World War I. The long restrictive skirts, stiff collars, body molding corsets and formal behavior of earlier decades quickly faded away.

The new straight, dropped waist easy-to-wear clothing gave mobility and freedom of movement in tune with the young independent women of the casual, post-war jazz age generation. The real dress revolution, however, was that for the first time women wore skirts that showed their legs.

In the early twentieth century mail order catalogues, department store ready-mades, dressmakers, home sewing machines, paper patterns, and fashion information published in newspapers and magazines made it possible for most women--working or well to do—to participate in fashion at least to some degree.

Maine department stores such as Freese' of Bangor, Peck's of Lewiston and Libby's of Portland sold modest and higher priced fashions. Women seeking something individual might shop in a store fabric department and make use of the store dressmaking services.

North and south fashion flourished in Maine. In 1909 superior Portland dressmakers, the Misses Macdonough, by-passed the hitherto conventional bodice and skirt two-piece style and made the elegant tussah silk gown in the newly fashionable one-piece mode, seen in this exhibition. In 1912 Martha Willey Riley of Cherryfield, Maine wore an au courant purple dress that closely resembled a gown of the same year by leading London fashion designer, Lucille, revealing Martha to be an individual who closely studied fashion news. No doubt many other Maine women did the same.

Because few ordinary everyday fashions survive the exhibition traces Maine’s long-to-short skirt revolution with an array high style garments saved either by chance or for their association with special events such as weddings, parties and theater performances.

View slideshow of fashion items

Jacqueline Field is a graduate of Edinburgh College of Art and Moray House College, Scotland. She is the lead author of the award winning co-authored book, American Silk: Entrepreneurs and Artifacts (Texas Tech University Press, 2007) and published numerous articles on dress and textiles including "From Agriculture to Industry: Silk Production and Manufacture in Maine 1800-1930" (Maine History, Vol. 44, October 2008, pp. 19-49) and "Mud Silk and the Chinese Laundress: From the South China Silk Industry to Mud Silk Suits in Maine." (Textile History, Vol.2, November 2014, pp. 234-260.)