Last week a researcher from Colonial Williamsburg came to The Filson to examine our collection of 19th century women’s clothing for a study on the history of millinery shops. Our special collections staff pulled several of those garments for her to examine. Not surprisingly, I and my co-workers excitedly shared pictures of the dresses, fashions, and textiles used by women in the 19th century. Although our initial interests were, perhaps, frivolous, the study of material culture in a historic context plays a worthwhile, even vital, role in gaining a comprehensive understanding of the past. After all, as Shakespeare wrote, “the apparel oft proclaims the man.”
The study of garments and other items of material culture presents unique challenges to historians who have traditionally relied on written records for their research. However, the study of garments and textiles offers historians a valuable insight into the lives of people from the past. Although these sources are, by their very nature, nonverbal, they can tell a tale of their own. They can tell of a global economy where fashions from Europe made their way the Ohio Valley frontier. They demonstrate how interconnected societies were long before modern transportation and the Internet. A garment from our Special Collections is not just a pleasing aesthetic, but a physical manifestation of an interconnected global trade system whose reach spread from the silk reeling mills in China to the muddy waters of the Ohio River.
Let’s take a look at what some of the garments and textiles in our collection can tell us.
This ribbon dress was worn circa 1800. It was made in the latest European fashion, however, the evidence on the dress indicates that this dress was made of “recycled” fabric. The researcher from Colonial Williamsburg dated the ribbon fabric to the late 1700s. This was a common occurrence in the age before industrialized material production. Obviously, the women in this region did not allow the difficulty of procuring new fabric to limit their fashion choices.
This fashionable ice blue dress was worn circa 1810. It features a lovely lily of the valley brocade pattern. The short sleeves and open neckline help demonstrate why this style of early 19th century dress earned the moniker – “influenza dresses.”
This dress with the vines running over beige cotton fabric dates to 1840. It is believed that the now brown vines were originally a bright green, that likely faded to the brown color that it is today. This dress also features long, tight sleeves, with a cap top achieved with a drawstring.
This colorful dress from the early 1860’s consisted of a bodice, skirt, and large, fringed, detachable collar. The fabric is a bright plaid taffeta, and the fringe was originally a bright green. The past was not black and white – but full of color!
This simple dress was perhaps the most interesting of all. Originally worn around 1860, this simple cotton day dress had a mystery in its pocket – a bloody handkerchief. Was this dress worn by a victim of tuberculosis? Was it simply left there after a mother cleaned a scraped knee? A cut finger?
The Filson Library also has items related to garments and textiles. Although they don’t have the items themselves, they have ladies’ periodicals, catalogues, and pattern books that contain useful and interesting information about fashion in the Ohio Valley.
These colorful pictures were originally centerfolds of the Goody’s Lady’s Look magazine from 1863.
This interesting outfit was the signature look of the May 1889 edition of The Etelka Fashion Album – the Centennial Number. It is quite the patriotic outfit.
Here in Louisville, women were anxious to get their hands on the latest dress patterns from New York, London, and Paris. Mrs. S. E. Martin ran a millinery shop on West Market Street in the 1870’s. She helped meet that demand by providing the latest E. Butterick and Company’s catalogue every season.
Taken together these images and artifacts demonstrate how the Ohio Valley was not a back water when it came to fashion. The apparel tells us about the lives, interests, priorities, and economic condition of its wearers. However, these pieces also speak to a broader global history of interconnected economies and societies.