Northern Threads: Two centuries of dress at Maine Historical Society

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Why collect historic clothing?

Clothing or dress study is a new discipline. With few exceptions, prior to the mid-20th century, clothing was not collected or considered museum worthy. Attitudes are very different today, confirmed by a wealth of serious publications, academic and textile conservation programs, professional organizations, museum collections, and exhibition initiatives. Historic clothing collections offer insight to personality, life, and profession in a uniquely outward facing way. Clothing as a primary resource contextualizes social, economic, and environmental aspects of everyday life and shared experiences. How people chose, or are required to choose, to represent themselves through dress is a window into history. Fashion provides historical context, documenting how people communicated, built, or maintained relationships, formed identities, or drew connections between themselves and others.

However, as dress historian Valerie Cumming stated “All of these methods cannot recapture the past without imposing upon it our system of values.” What survives in museum holdings, either through thoughtful stewardship or benign neglect, is but a slice of history. Representation in historical clothing collections, as seen at MHS, typically skews towards White middle and upper-middle social classes. Revered items tucked away for posterity or uniforms with an emotional connection are more likely to survive, while clothing from diverse communities is often underrepresented. The overt or unconscious role of the museum in shaping history through collections cannot be ignored. By examining something so personal as historic clothing and dress, we can experience the past in new ways, and explore how the story of what is missing is just as important to tell.

What do we mean by Costume?

Fancy dress, ca. 1825

Fancy dress, ca. 1825

Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society

Museum vocabulary frequently uses the term costume to describe historic clothing. In the United States, costume is commonly associated with clothing worn during theatrical performances, masquerade balls, or during Halloween. Historically, people used the phrase fancy dress to describe costumes in this sense.

With these dual and sometimes degrading meanings, the modern museum community no longer considers the term costume appropriate when describing ceremonial clothing, clothing associated with specific communities, or military uniforms. In response, MHS broadened our collection vocabulary to include historic clothing, costume, and dress. The collective term attempts to capture the full array of items within the permanent collection.

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