This is the time of year when some of us pay a little more attention to what we’re wearing.
Halloween costumes, Thanksgiving dinner, holiday parties, New Year’s Eve soirees — for some, it’s important to make an impression, and many of us do it through festive clothes and accessories.
The women of the late 19th and early 20th centuries had this pressure on a weekly basis. They laced themselves into corsets, adorned themselves with feathered hats, squeezed into elegant dresses and piled on the jewelry for a simple visit to a neighbor.
The items on view in a new exhibit at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland are a tribute not only to the lengths women of the era went, but also to a time when custom workmanship and refined dress were commonplace.
“Elegantly Attired: Victorian Apparel and Accessories in Coastal Maine” features dozens of pieces of finery, including dresses, underclothing, fans and hats, and more than 100 pieces of Farnsworth family jewelry in an exploration of the upper-middle-class life of the area.
The exhibition, on display in the Nevelson-Berliawsky Gallery, runs through April 25, 2010.
“The thing that I like about this exhibit is it’s all local,” said Janice Kasper, who curates the Farnsworth’s historic properties, including the Farnsworth Homestead and the Olson House in Cushing. “The dresses were worn by women from Camden, and all the photographs were from two women photographers who lived in the area. This is what was going on here in the late 19th century.”
Almost all of the items on display are from either the Farnsworth family itself or other local families. At the center of the show is a group of stunning dresses that were donated several years ago by Camden residents Archie and Isabelle Bailey.
The Baileys came into the dresses through a connection with the Shepherd family of Camden, said Kasper. Captain Franklin P. Shepherd, who lived from 1840 to 1901, was a sea captain who sailed to China. His wife, Maggie, died in 1928 and his daughter, Annabel Hodgman, died in 1926.
The dresses were apparently worn by the two women and likely used when making formal visits, or calls, on neighbors, or for accepting calls. They were made from rich silks of brown, iridescent black and red, green, pink, gray and maroon with detailed buttons, ribbons, ruffles and lace. It’s possible some of the fabric came from Asia, Kasper said, because Franklin Shepherd was known to have been involved in the China trade.
The details are even more impressive considering the dresses at the time were entirely hand-made, with maybe just a sewing machine to help (the machine on display at the museum is from the Farnsworth Homestead).
That’s why jobs such as dressmaker and tailor were considered highly skilled professions. In the 1870 census, according to research done for the exhibit, there were 86 people in the city of Rockland alone who identified themselves as dressmakers, tailoresses, seamstresses or milliners.
“It was kind of an acceptable thing for women to do, to make dresses,” Kasper said. “You really couldn’t go out and buy ready-made clothing. You have to have a dress maker make it all. It wasn’t until the 20th century you could go out and buy this.”
The display also includes an ivory satin wedding gown from 1890.
As sumptuous as they are, it is the dresses’ size that may be most remarkable.
“That’s the first thing everybody notices, how small they are,” Kasper said. “We bought dress forms which were a size 2-4 to display the dresses, and we had to carve them down. One [of the dresses] is so small we had to make a form for it.”
To answer the question of how Victorian women managed to get themselves into those tiny dresses, the exhibit includes a display of underclothing, including a corset, camisole, crinoline hoops and a half slip. There are also old advertisements for corsets, including one with a spider web in the background — implying that the more molded a woman’s form, the more likely she was to catch a man.
The least restrictive piece of clothing in the exhibition is a white cotton nightgown.
Like the dresses, the details of lace and ribbon on the underthings are remarkable.
“This is clothing that’s not seen [by the public], but you have to look at all the lace work, the flowers, the stitching,” Kasper said. “It’s just amazing.”
Once women were stuffed into their dresses, they accessorized with hats and fans. “Elegantly Attired” includes more than 25 fans and fan cases from the Farnsworth’s extensive collection, most of which Kasper said hasn’t been displayed since the 1950s.
To say these pieces are merely devices one used to keep cool or stave off black flies is an understatement — the fans are more like intricately carved and extravagantly decorated confections. Some had Oriental themes, others have rural scenes. The materials used include ivory, silk, sandalwood, tortoise shell, metal, black lacquer, paper and sequins.
Many had feathers, too, including ostrich, bird of paradise and blue kingfisher, and one fan even has a whole stuffed hummingbird, which is another issue the Farnsworth explores through “Elegantly Attired.”
The exhibit includes a cabinet of stuffed birds borrowed from the L.C. Bates Museum in Hinckley.
“The feather trade, as they called it, was a very lucrative business,” Kasper said. “People were going out and just killing all these birds.”
In 1910 the New York State legislature enacted the Audubon Plumage Law, prohibiting sale or possession of feathers from protected bird species, which led to the creation of the Audubon Society.
A series of photographs by Ida Crie of Rockland and Ruth Montgomery of East Boothbay from the Rockland Historical Society and Penobscot Marine Museum, respectively, offer glimpses into the homes and daily lives of Victorian families.
There is also some children’s clothing on display, although Kasper said the museum doesn’t have too much in its collection.
“Children’s clothing didn’t last very long,” she said. “Most of it was passed down and used hard.”
The Farnsworth family jewelry collection, including many gold pieces and some made from human hair, is also on display.
Lucy Farnsworth, however, who founded the museum with a bequest in 1948, apparently didn’t think to donate her own elegant attire. It was believed to have been sent to a relative in Washington state, and the museum hasn’t been able to trace the location of the clothes.
“I think, and Lucy was a very frugal woman, that she probably figured there was some use left in the clothing,” Kasper said. “So we had just a few items [of clothing]. In the past, I would put one or two on display but this was an opportunity to tell the whole story, with all the fans and hats and dresses and jewelry together at the same time.”
For more information, go to www.farnsworthmuseum.org.