One of the highlights of my recent trip was The Fashions of Fiction from Pamela to Gatsby at the Fashion Archives and Museum at Shippensburg University. I’d never been to Shippensburg, but I know of their collection due to an exhibition I attended at the DAR Museum in Washington, DC, a few years. In that show, some of my favorite garments had been loaned from Shippensburg, and I’ve been wanting to visit ever since.
I got my chance when the Costume Society of America Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions planned a symposium at Shippensburg. I’ll be posting more about the symposium, but today is all about FA&M. As you can see above, the curator, Karin Bohleke, chose seven works of fiction, and then illustrated the characters through the use of the types of clothing they would have worn. This is not a new concept, as it especially pertains to Jane Austin, but the choice and range of the novels was interesting in that it also presented a sort of fashion timeline, with a few gaps.
It was also interesting because not all the characters were rich, and not all were white. I liked that there was a mix of female and male authors. There was not only women’s clothing, but also that of men and children. It really helped that I had read five of the seven works, and I’ll go ahead and suggest that any of you who might be visiting Shippensburg before this exhibition closes in April, should have read all seven novels.
I had not read Pamela, but there was a short synopsis of each novel, and notes concerning how garments were important to the story. Pamela had been a lady’s maid, but she inherited finer things when her mistress died. The blue silk gown dates to circa 1750, but was later refashioned. The petticoat was made by Mary Marsh Leggett, and dates a bit later.
Detail of gown and petticoat
Accessories play a big role in Pamela, with pockets standing as a symbol for concealment. This lovely pocket is wool on linen, circa 1750. The shoes were worn by Hannah Breck for her 1737 wedding in Massachusetts.
This is a housewife from the early nineteenth century. Every lady’s maid would have carried one in her pocket.
Men’s clothes were also important to the story. Pamela finally shows her love for her mistress’s son by sewing a waistcoat for him, this after he tried to impress her with a fancy gold lace waistcoat. This silk with gold embroidery coat was stunning.
Ourika was a young Senegalese woman who had been taken to France and who was educated by a rich family. All’s well until she realizes that as a black woman she has few prospects in the marriage market, regardless of her accomplishments.
The brown gown dates a bit later than the white, circa 1795. It shows the coming fashion associated with the last years of the eighteenth century, and the first ones of the nineteenth.
You can barely see the shoes associated with both dresses, but they too are antique. I hate exhibitions where the accessories are so in one’s face that they overshadow the clothes, but this was an instance where I wished for a little more shoe.
Ourika’s gown is made from silk woven in the famous Spitalfields of London, circa 1770. Can cloth this fine even be woven these days?
I’m guessing there are few among us who have not read Jane Eyre. My big confession is that I really did not care much for the book; even after three readings I’ve not been able to warm to Jane and her Mr. Rochester. But no matter, as the clothes make up for the story.
Left to right:
The white wonderfully embroidered dress (circa 1815) represents the haughty Blanche. I really wish you could see the purple checked shoes she is wearing.
Mrs. Dent is wearing a black cotton and net gown, in keeping with her more conservative character. Circa 1818. Her embroidered shawl is circa 1805.
Mr. Rochester makes his appearance in his paisley banyan, or dressing gown.
And then there is Jane:
My best dress (the silver-gray one) was soon put on: my sole ornament, the pearl brooch soon assumed. I perceived my sandal was loose; I stopped to tie it, kneeling down for that purpose. I heard the dining-room door unclose; rising hastily I stood face to face with him: it was Mr. Rochester.
Having these snippets of text from the works represented added so much meaning to this exhibition. Note how Jane’s shoe ties are loose.
One of my favorite dresses in the exhibition was this one – a circa 1800 embroidered silk evening gown. How about that purple! The turban and sleeves are reproduction, but add much to the way the dress is presented.
I’ll finish this tour in my next post, but I have a few words to say about cooperation. Even though the Fashion Archive and Museum has a very large collection, sometimes one needs a bit of help to fill in the gaps. I mentioned earlier that I first saw some of the Shippensburg collection at the DAR Museum. They in turn, have some objects represented in this show, as does the Chester County Historical Society, collector Mary Doering, and the Maryland Historical Society. I think it is great the smaller collections can work together like this so visitors can have such a delightful experience.
Next time, more stories.