November 07, 2009 – April 18, 2010
Elegantly Attired opens the door into a lively time when wealthy sea captains and their spouses traveled the world and brought back cosmopolitan ideals and handiwork to their bustling midcoast communities. The exhibition draws on the museum’s collection of nineteenth century clothing and accessories including day and evening attire, nightgowns, undergarments, hats and shoes, fans, and jewelry dating from 1850 to 1900. The exhibition, which is on display in the museum’s Nevelson/Berliawsky Gallery, runs through April 25, 2010.
During the second half of the nineteenth century the coastal towns of Maine were in an economic boom: Maine was the largest producer of wooden sailing vessels; the lime industry in Rockport and Rockland were at their height; and Bangor was the lumber capital of the world. In addition, many of the captains commanding the American merchant fleet were native Mainers and a good number of them brought their wives on voyages. Those travelers, visiting foreign and domestic ports, shopped for the latest in materials and fashions. In Camden, Rockland and Thomaston men and women could be found wearing the finest in fashion and decorating their homes following the latest styles.
With a growing middle and upper class, entertaining became more prevalent. Dances, dinners and afternoon visiting, or “calling” became a matter of routine. Women strived to look their best for these social occasions. It was the era before clothes were mass-produced and items of clothing were individually designed and sewn by a dressmaker to fit the client’s body. Style features included waistlines as small as twenty inches, achieved with the aid of whalebone corsets and bustles to emphasize the derrière.
Fans were an important fashion accessory, and there are many fine examples in the exhibition. Aside from their obvious use, fans were also convenient communication devices. Whether a fan was snapped shut or fluttered sent a nonverbal message to admirers of the opposite sex. The fan was so essential it was often referred to as the “woman’s scepter.” Imagery on fans ranged from advertising, such as an image of the original Samoset Hotel, to intricate paintings of Chinese court scenes on the fan’s leaves and delicately carved ivory stems and guards.
Included in this show are daytime and evening dresses given to the museum by Archie and Isabel Bailey, clothing once worn in the latter half of the nineteenth century by Maggie Shepard, wife of Captain Frank Shepard of Camden, and their daughter Annabel (Shepard) Hodgman.
Nearly one hundred rings, watches, earrings, bracelets and necklaces worn by members of the William A. Farnsworth family of Rockland will also be on display. This nineteenth century jewelry includes such items as a brooch and earrings that resemble hot air balloons, a collection of personally engraved gold thimbles (that were popular gift items of the time), and enameled and jeweled pocket watches once belonging to individual members of the Farnsworth family.
Since many of the hats and fans are adorned with feathers the exhibition will include a section discussing the feather trade in the nineteenth century. Rampant plumage trafficking almost decimated entire bird species and was the motive behind the beginning of the Audubon Society in the United States.