Northern Threads: Two centuries of dress at Maine Historical Society

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.

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.

Northern Threads Part I: ca. 1780-1889

Northern Threads is a two-part exhibition featuring clothing from ca. 1780 through ca. 1980. Part I examines fashions from about 1780 until 1889, the MHS historic clothing collection's first one hundred years. It includes garments, military uniforms and accessories, organized into themed vignettes. The in-person physical exhibition of Northern Threads Part I ran from March until July 2022. A virtual tour is hosted on this site.

Parts I and II each feature a signature garment, meant to represent an iconic fashion trend from their respective one hundred years. Hannah P. Adam of Belfast's beautifully embroidered dress stands as the signature piece for Part I.

Adams' ensemble of lightweight camel colored wool exemplifies an extreme and short-lived mid-19th century bustle skirt style known as the cuirasse. The French word for fitted military metal armor, cuirasse aptly describes the long, tightly fitted body and hip hugging jacket, called a basque, which divides at the back to accommodate walking. It features a bunched low-slung bustle.

Designed by Boston dressmaker W.H. Bigelow, the garment is trimmed throughout with colorful hand-embroidered floral sprays, and chenille bobble fringe. The embroidery evokes daisies, berries, wheat, cattails and poppies. Hannah P. Adams (1855-1935) reportedly embroidered the dress herself, supported by evidence the embroidery was applied after the dress’ construction.

View all Northern Threads Part I's themed vignettes using the links below.

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