Northern Threads: Two centuries of dress at Maine Historical Society

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Celebrating Maine Historical Society’s 200th anniversary (2022), Northern Threads considers the people, culture, and history of the State through two hundred years of fashion. Organized thematically, it explores how the clothing Maine people wore reveals their social, economic, and environmental concerns. Clothes transmit a wide range of information. They simultaneously create and erase identities, unify and separate people, and both celebrate and oppress cultures.

This examination of Maine Historical’s extensive collection provides an opportunity to consider the relevance of historic clothing in museums, the ebb and flow of styles, and the complexities of diverse representation spanning 200 years of collecting. As Northern Threads demonstrates, Maine residents – urban and rural – were fully engaged in the choices of the style, pattern, fabric, and construction of their dress no matter when they lived.

About the Collection

The Maine Historical Society’s historic clothing, costume, and dress collection, referred to as the “clothing collection” is a signature aspect of MHS’ museum holdings. At this time (2022), MHS divides its clothing collection into three categories: garments, military uniforms, and accessories. The garment portion, about 3,000 pieces, encompasses clothing for people who identified as women, with a smaller representation of menswear and childrenswear. At present, the clothing collection’s strengths are between 1830 to 1860, and 1890 to 1940. Several examples date as early as 1720 and others as recent as 2021. A large transfer from Westbrook College in 1993 more than doubled MHS' holdings, which until that time focused largely on 19th century garments.

At the time of Northern Threads physical exhibition, the clothing collection is strongest in middle and upper-middle class womenswear; military uniforms; special occasion and bridal. Very few examples of work-a-day or everyday wear are represented, typically because such items were used, rather than saved for posterity. Work to expand representation is an ongoing collecting focus at MHS.

In 2017, the Institute of Museum and Library Services provided support to photograph, preserve, and add the garments online, including a curated Maine Memory Network (MMN) portal with narratives authored by fashion and textile historian Jacqueline Field. Much of the Northern Threads exhibition is drawn from the MMN portal.

Online Features

Northern Threads is a two-part exhibition. Part I, appearing on page three, features online image galleries for clothing from 1780 through 1889.

Virtual tours for Part I and Part II, featuring clothing from 1890 to circa 1980 are available below.

View the Northern Threads Part I virtual exhibition through a 3-D online experience.

View the Northern Threads Part II virtual exhibition through a 3-D online experience.

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