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Long before Bean Boots, Mainers were at the forefront of fashion

Long before LL Bean boots were modeled by Brooklyn hipsters and Angela Adams handbags draped over the shoulders of people in Los Angeles, Mainers had a keen sense of fashion.

In the 1870s, for example, fashion-conscious Maineers knew that the voluminous style of women’s skirt known as the “polonaise” was giving way to a much slimmer silhouette called the “cuirasse,” from the French word meaning close to the body, like armour. When Hannah P. Adams of Belfast received her wedding trousseau at the time of this trend change, it included a dress in the newest style, as well as a knee-length jacket called basque.

“Mainers have always been in style, and that’s something we see in our clothing collection,” said Jamie Kingman Rice, deputy director of the Maine Historical Society. “Because of links with British shipping in the mid-1800s, people in places like Eastport and Belfast would have had access to the latest fashions and trendy ideas. But we see that people from more rural areas were also interested.

The idea that Mainers – at least some – have long shown a flair for fashion is the theme of an exhibit at the Maine Historical Society in Portland titled “Northern Threads: Two Centuries of Dress at Maine Historical Society”, with about 50 sets from 1780 -1889, including Hannah P. Adams’ dress, on view through July 30. The company’s clothing collection is so extensive that the exhibition has been split into two parts, with clothing from 1890-1980 on view from August 12 to December 31.

The historical society is also currently hosting two other exhibits that help illustrate Mainers’ ties or obsessions with fashion over the past 200 years. “Cosmopolitan Stylings of Mildred and Madeleine Burrage” focuses on two sisters from Maine who were artists and includes drawings by Parisian fashion designers in the 1920s and 1930s. It is on view until September 24.

The other is “Representing Every Particular: John Martin’s 19th Century Fashion Illustrations”, featuring observations, opinions and drawings of local fashion from the diary of a Bangor businessman in the second half of the 1800s, On view until August 6.

Online versions of all three exhibits can be viewed at Maine Historical Society “current exhibits” page.

“Northern Threads: Two Centuries of Dress at Maine Historical Society” is a two-part exhibit. Ben McCanna / Personal Photographer

Rice, senior curator of “Northern Threads,” had begun planning the exhibit for the state’s bicentennial in 2020, but the pandemic and other issues pushed the exhibit back. So now it’s open during the historical society’s bicentennial year, which is fitting, Rice says, because it showcases part of the society’s collection of some 3,000 garments.

The “Northern Threads” show marks one of the few times the historical society has exhibited so much clothing, Rice said, because clothing shows are labor intensive. Many parts are light and fragile and should be handled and displayed with care. In addition, the lighting must be carefully arranged, so as not to damage the fabrics. Some parts cannot be left in the light and air for too long.

A 1931 design from Paris for an evening dress from the “Cosmopolitan Stylings of Mildred and Madeleine Burrage” exhibit at the Maine Historical Society in Portland. Photo courtesy of Maine Historical Society/Maine Memory Network No.54252

Much of the clothing came from family collections, donated to the historical society, while many came to the historical society from the collection of the former Westbrook College in Portland (now part of the University of New England ), which had a fashion program. Some pieces that represent the latest fashions of the day come from families who lived in small rural or remote places, such as the small town of Alexander, on Route 9 near Calais, or the city of Waterford in the county of Oxford. . In the second part of “Northern Threads”, there will be a wedding dress decorated with ostrich feathers used for a wedding on the remote island of Matinicus in the 1890s.

This first part of ‘Northern Threads’ includes Civil War-era military dresses and uniforms, bustle dresses, dresses made with repurposed fabric from a time when material wasn’t easy to come by. , mourning clothes and dresses with the “leg” or bouffant. sleeves popular in the 183os.

One of the leg-sleeved dresses exemplifies Rice’s view of remote places in Maine having a pipeline to foreign fashion. This is a woven silk and satin two-piece set, circa 1830, and belonged to the Leavitt family of Eastport. It comes with a small cape, called pereline, which fits over the dress. Dark purple silk was expensive at the time and probably dyed with imported logwood, before the advent of chemical dyeing.

In the 1830s, Eastport residents would have been influenced in their fashions and tastes by the steady stream of British ships bringing European goods to the remote Maine seaport, Rice said. The number of British ships coming to Eastport increased by 800% in the early 1830s.

Examples of the lamb sleeve in dresses of the 1820s-1830s, on display at the Maine Historical Society. Ben McCanna / Personal Photographer

Another theme running through the historical society’s clothing collection is the creativity of the Mainers, who sometimes bought the latest fashions but adapted them with their own hands and ideas, Rice said. The dress belonging to Hannah Adams in Belfast, for example, bears a label from a Boston clothier, WH Bigalow, 150 Warren Ave., Boston. But later, the dress was hand-embroidered with colorful floral designs – alluding to daisies, berries, cattails and poppies. A chenille fringe has also been added.

There is an area of ​​the “Northern Threads” exhibit dedicated to adaptive reuse. A very clever example is a green, white and pink silk brocade dress worn by a member of the Jewett family to an 1825 Portland ball honoring the Marquis de Lafayette, a Revolutionary War hero. The fabric of the dress dates from the late 1730s or early 1740s, and the dress was originally made in the 1770s. Then it was altered and redesigned for the 1825 ball, but in a neo style. -colonial.

A few more examples of Mainers’ own creative adaptations of the fashion will be seen in part two of “Northern Threads” when it opens in August. One is a women’s bomber jacket – think Amelia Earhart – that was popular in the 1930s. It was made by a Maine woman who worked in a shoe factory and had access to leather .

Surprising personal stories complement eye-catching fashions. Among the various military uniforms on display is the uniform coat of Oliver Otis Howard of Leeds, when he was a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point in the 1850s. During the Civil War, Howard lost his right arm at the Battle of Seven Pines in Virginia. After the war, he was commissioner of the United States Freedmen’s Bureau and founder of Howard University in Washington, D.C., now one of the nation’s best-known historically black colleges.

The other two fashion exhibits now at the historical society also stem from personal stories. Sisters Mildred Giddings Burrage (1890-1983) and Madeleine Burrage (1891-1976) came from a Maine family that made their fortune in the woods around the Bangor area and eventually settled in Wiscasset. Mildred studied and worked as an artist in France, where she became interested in haute couture. Madeleine became a jewelry designer and both traveled extensively in Europe and South America, often writing at home about the fashions they saw.

Among the papers and writings collected by Mildred are original drawings and descriptions of clothing designs from fashion houses in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. The drawings were sent to potential customers in the days before catalogs and websites Web, said Tilly Laskey, curator at the Maine Historical Society and the Burrage show.

Thirty of these “line sheets” featuring models of clothing are exhibited as part of the show. The addresses and other information show they were not sent directly to Mildred, and it’s unclear how she acquired them over the years, Laskey said. Many of these designs are in full color and are accompanied by pictures of fabrics and color swatches.

Laskey also curated “Representing Every Particular: John Martin’s 19th Century Fashion Illustrations.” Martin’s designs are particularly interesting because he was neither an artist nor a student of fashion. He was an accountant and merchant from Bangor who was a keen observer. His own father had died when he was young, and he knew little about him. He therefore had a strong desire to help his children learn about his time and his experiences. He left behind a 650-page diary and several albums of notes and sketches, made from the 1860s to the 1890s. He drew what he saw and added his own commentary.

Annie Martin drawn by her father, John Martin, in 1866 from “Representing Every Particular: John Martin’s 19th Century Fashion Illustrations” at the Maine Historical Society. Photo courtesy of Maine Historical Society/Maine State Museum/Maine Memory Network No. 101171

One of his later drawings, “A Society Lady of 1889”, shows a woman in a lively dress, colored in bright colors of orange, red, purple and green, and holding a parasol and a small handbag. In his description of the design, Martin calls the subject “a lady of today’s society” and notes that if the fabric of the dress is not expensive, it “shows that the person wearing it is a person of good taste”. Ten of his doodles and illustrations are on display.

“He can get a little sarcastic about what people were wearing and his descriptions are pretty funny,” Laskey said. “He drew them freehand and offered a lot of information about what he was seeing.”


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Hazel J. Edmonds

The author Hazel J. Edmonds