June 21, 2018
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Who said Bangor wasn’t a stylish place?

By Wayne E. Reilly, Special to the BDN

Bangor clothing merchants made a courageous decision on May 5, 1911, just five days after the great fire devastated much of the downtown. Meeting at city hall, they voted unanimously to go ahead with the city’s first “style show,” an event they had been planning for months for May 16-18.

Outside the front door of city hall, you could still smell the acrid odor of ashes. The burned district, where the skeletal remains of hundreds of buildings poked from piles of rubble, began across the street.  Amid this desolation, the merchants were sending a message: The Queen City of the East was still open for business. The headline that day in the Bangor Daily Commercial told the story more fully: “Merchants Undaunted — Plan to Run Show on Even Larger Scale.” In fact, only one of the city’s clothing stores had been badly damaged by the fire.

Bangor, with its logging heritage, was not thought of as a stylish place. As the lumber business declined, however, the city was evolving into northern Maine’s commercial center. The Queen City had to establish itself in stylish matters or risk losing customers to Portland and beyond. The style show could evolve into another important trade show like the automobile and food shows had become during the past few years.

Many commitments had already been made. The “committee on models” had secured the services of 12 professional female models from New York City, “some of them having been featured in the recent Gimbel Style Show in that city,” boasted the newspaper. Carpenters, electricians and decorators had started transforming city hall auditorium before the fire. The stores had ordered the latest styles from “leading houses in New York.” The railroads had agreed to offer excursion rates.

Bangor had a ready-made audience. People were flocking into town to see the fire damage. This would show them that the Queen City had more to offer than smoke and rubble. It would correct the misperception spread by the yellow press in some big cities that the Queen City had been destroyed.

Bangor people needed some attention, too. They were always trying to keep up with Boston and New York City. Not being particularly stylish, however, they apparently needed some instruction in the fine points of dress. When the show was over, “Bangor will be fully conversant with what to wear and how to wear it, or it will not be the fault of the local merchants,” said the Commercial on May 15 as the show got under way.

City hall auditorium had been transformed. “Down the center of the hall is a long promenade terminating in a square wooden platform about midway of the floor.” The models would display their gowns and suits — from ball gowns to automobile wear and horse-riding habits — as they walked back and forth on this runway before the audience packing the balcony and floor seats.

Bangor newspapers were always interested in decorations at such events. “The predominating color used is white, relieved by pink in the apple blossoms that have been worked in here and there and the green of the latticed railings that separate the exhibits from the too curious in the crowd and prevent the handling of delicate fabrics on display,” said the newspaper. The balcony was hung with bunting “caught up at regular intervals with large sprays of apple blossoms.” And “festoons of electric lights” hung from the center of the hall to the balcony.

The Bangor Band, directed by Adelbert W. Sprague,  provided the music accompanied by several local vocalists. They played everything from opera to marches. “March Renneissance” by Sprague was dedicated to “the New Bangor.” Admission was 25 cents and another quarter would purchase a reserved seat.

It was the models, however, who were the central attraction. “They looked as though they had just stepped from the page of a fashion supplement of a woman’s magazine. … They have attractive clothes and know how to wear them,” gushed the excited male reporter.

People came from miles away. Auto travelers were particularly noteworthy. “A party of six came over in a machine from Skowhegan Tuesday, attending the show in the afternoon, returning Tuesday evening,” noted the Commercial. Of much greater significance, nearly 400 admittance coupons were taken from Maine Central Railroad ticket holders on Wednesday alone.

The show ended Thursday, May 18, deemed a tremendous success. Saved for the last evening, perhaps in case there were unpleasant repercussions, was a harem skirt, “the real thing, direct from the fashion center,” worn by a model.

“It is a novelty,” the newspaper explained almost apologetically. “And it will probably be some time before Bangor sees any of them in general use, but people are interested in them and the merchants want to show. … they are not one bit behind when it comes to keeping up with the times.”

Outrageous fashions like harem skirts had caused riots in some places. But in fact, Bangor had already seen at least one, according the Bangor Daily News on April 5, 1911. The first harem skirt was worn up and down Exchange Street as an advertising stunt for the Graphic Theater by a female impersonator.

“Although at first thought to be Julia[n] Eltinge, the famous female impersonator from Boston, the Harem parader turned out to be Mlle. Carmen of the Graphic Theater even more famous hereabouts. She or he created a great sensation, attracting crowds everywhere. He or she made a stunning appearance and she or he was a perfect blonde lady,” noted the news reporter.

A similar display in Biddeford a day earlier had resulted in the arrest of the young model, who was told she was not allowed to wear a harem skirt in that city. She was sent to her hotel room until nightfall when she was invited to leave town under cover of darkness. Whoever said Bangor wasn’t a stylish place?

Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears every other Monday.  An illustrated collection, Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire, is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at wreilly.bdn@gmail.com

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