BELFAST, Maine — The fashion show had a catwalk, swivel-hipped models and an appreciative audience that “oohed” and “aahed” when a particularly lovely outfit came parading by.
It also had a lot of history.
The show, “A Day in the Life … Notable Women of Belfast and Their Fashion,” filled St. Margaret’s Parish House to capacity Saturday afternoon. As local women and girls modeled vintage gowns, tea dresses, walking ensembles, nightwear and lingerie, Megan Pinette of the Belfast Historical Society and Museum talked about how women deeply influenced Belfast between the 1890s and the 1920s.
“The 20th century brought extraordinary changes to women’s worlds in the home and outside of the home,” Pinette said. “The first decade of the century saw the creation of Waldo County Hospital, the Belfast Girls’ Home, Belfast City Park and the Home for Aged Women. Each of these institutions made an important impact on life in the city, and each lasted through the 20th century and into the 21st. Belfast women were the critical driving force behind each.”
She said that upper-class women were still second-class citizens because they were not permitted to vote, seek public office or hold management jobs.
“These remarkable women insisted on establishing a basic social infrastructure for the city, and they succeeded,” Pinette said.
Two little girls walked out on the runway, each wearing white lace dresses and sporting big white bows in their hair.
The two helped to illustrate the Belfast Girls’ Home, which was opened in 1895 and was the first and only home of the kind in the state. Girls between the ages of five and 14 who were not able to be cared for by their parents or relatives came from all over the state to learn how to help themselves in a noninstitutional environment.
The home closed its doors in 1950, when it merged with the Sweetser Children’s Home, Pinette said.
As women grew more active and sought more public roles as the 20th century began, their clothes changed, too. Tight corsets and uncomfortable boning gave way to looser, more practical garb.
Models showed off gowns that showed the altering fashions of the day as Pinette spoke of World War I and suffragettes. By the 1920s, flapper fashion had lost corsets.
“And waists,” Pinette said.
But women gained the vote in 1920, and the oldest woman to register in Belfast was 94. Altogether, 872 women registered to vote. Some announced they were going to run for office. And in 1924, the first woman police officer in Waldo County was hired to look after children at night and manage contagious diseases “of a private nature,” Pinette said.
At the end of the parade of fashion and history, Pinette told the audience — mostly made up of well-dressed ladies — that she appreciated the chance to see the gowns outside of the museum.
“It really was truly wonderful to see the dresses come to life,” she said.
Cathy Heberer of Belfast said that she enjoyed the fashionable trip through time.
“It’s just amazing to me, how they brought all the clothing and the happenings of that period to life,” she said. “It was just beautiful.”
Pinette will give a talk about how women shaped Belfast at 7 p.m. Monday, May 21 at the Belfast Free Library.