LUBEC, Maine — From the thinnest linen Chinese prayer shirt, to a heavy blue woolen coat from Mongolia, to a 25-pound wedding kimono from Japan woven with golden threads, the textile collection of Gretchen Mead seems to whisper stories.
Hanging high in Mead’s gallery is a child’s tiny dress, a pair of miniature shoes and an elaborately embroidered baby sling. Who loved these children so, to decorate their clothing with such skill and care?
There is a burqa, the brilliant blue color contrasting with a tiny slit to allow the wearer to see. Was this an old woman’s protection or a young lady’s shroud?
A tiny pair of shoes are decorated with barely visible stitching. A hat is cleverly created to look like a cat. Unusual materials — mirrors, coins, coconut husks — are used as decorations.
The collection, Known by What We Wear, is the treasure collected during a lifetime of traveling — dresses, hats and gowns brought to Maine from across the globe by Gretchen and Alan Mead. Ten different countries are represented, from Guatemala to Yemen to Mongolia.
“My parents lived in Bahrain before World War II,” Gretchen Mead said, from the Laughing Raven Gallery on Water Street in Lubec. “My dad worked for an oil company. While they were there, they purchased the first two original costumes in my collection.”
Mead, 70, displayed a photograph of her parents: her father looking like a man from “The Arabian Nights” and her mother appearing as a harem girl.
Mead said once she saw those outfits, she was hooked.
“Regional costumes are still very much alive in the second and third worlds,” Mead said. “In rural areas individuality is not as important as clan and tribe values, so dressing alike is stressed.” Her collection consists of clothing that people actually wore.
She relayed a story about one coat that her husband brought back from a trip to China.
“He bought it right off the woman’s back on the train,” Mead said. “It smelled like fermented mare’s milk when I got it.”
Mead has cleaned each piece carefully but done no restoration — the clothing is in exceptional condition.
“I love color — I’m a watercolor artist,” she said. “So a lot of the costumes I buy are quite colorful. It is also my passion to travel.”
The couple biked through Europe, toured South America by bus and boat and took trains across Asia.
“All of those countries seemed so exotic to me when I was a child,” she said. “I had to see them.”
She said the couple were careful not to travel to any unstable countries.
“I would not be a happy hostage,” she said.
But as the couple ages, she said, their traveling days are mostly behind them.
“And so, I found the Internet,” Mead said. She has been able to find many vintage, authentic costumes online. “I guess I would estimate the collection at many thousands, but I really haven’t kept track,” she said.
She said many of the rural costumes are no longer being worn as day-to-day wear and a lot of the vintage clothing has been purchased by decorators to be cut up into pillows and other items.
“Lots of countries have become industrialized and westernized,” she said. “These vintage costumes have fallen out of favor.”
She said she watched a woman wearing a kimono walking down a Japanese sidewalk as two young girls in T-shirts and jeans made disparaging remarks.
“In much of Africa, especially north Africa, people are still wearing tribal garb,” she said, “but in many countries these clothes are only used for festivals or special occasions.”
“I think that the wearing of traditional clothing on a daily basis may only last one more generation,” she said. “People now tend to think of clothing as disposable. They might save a wedding gown or a Christening dress, but that’s about it.”
The costume exhibit is on display at Laughing Raven Gallery. The gallery is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. Admission is free.