Currently Reading: What Clothes Reveal

It’s been a while since I shared a book I’ve been reading, but I’ve picked a real winner to recommend this time. What Clothes Reveal by Linda Baumgarten is considered to be a classic in eighteenth century clothing studies. Yes, I know the eighteenth century is far beyond my usual subject of twentieth century sports fashion, but it never hurts to widen one’s knowledge base. And while the book is based on Colonial Williamsburg’s Colonial and Federal era clothing collection, it’s really more an book on how to read the clues contained within historical clothing.

As expected, there are lots of pretty pictures of exceptionally pretty garments. But this is not the story told in What Clothes Reveal.

What we are given is a look at and inside of clothes from all walks of life; clothes for the rich and the poor, the young and the old, male and female, enslaved and free.

I found Baumgarten’s writing about clothing that has been altered to be of real interest. She pointed out that most of the garments in the Colonial Williamsburg collection have some kind of alteration. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Altered clothing confirms and illuminates the written record of how people lived with their clothes.Each garment has a different story contained within the threads and fibers themselves, allowing modern onlookers to peer into the lives of those who wore items over many years and who adapted to constantly changing life situations. Altered clothing shows how people related to their own histories and reveals that continuum in the present, allowing people today to share in the history.If a pristine garment is a valuable snapshot of a person, places, or time, then an altered garment is a motion picture that tells another compelling story worthy of careful preservation.

Baumgarten has illustrated her book not only with pictures of garments, but also with the historical references that show similar garments as they were worn. It’s a great example of how history is actually practiced by historians.

Does she look familiar? This is Anne Shippen Willing, whose portrait was featured in another book I’ve reviewed here, Portrait of a Woman in Silk, by Zara Anishanlin.  The textile was designed by Anna Maria Garthwaite, and Colonial Williamsburg has a very similar design on a silk panel from a skirt (supposedly owned by Martha Washington).

Have you ever wondered how Lucy Locket managed to lose her pocket? In the eighteenth century pockets were separate items and were tied around a woman’s waist under her petticoat. Lucy’s knot must have slipped.

For many of the garments illustrated, we are treated to multiple views, including closeups of the textiles. This circa 1810 gown was made from a block-printed cotton.

The book ends with a very useful timeline which shows the changes in fashion from 1690 through 1835.  It’s a lot to absorb, but is a great reference.

There’s a lot of information within the pages of What Clothes Reveal, and a lot of big ideas,  but I found myself totally caught up in each and every page. The book is so readable and free of jargon that the concepts were clear even to a person who is not that familiar with pre-twentieth century clothing.

I think I appreciated this even more than usual because I had just finished reading Cubism and Fashion, by Richard Martin who had been the curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The language was so ponderous that I found myself rereading paragraphs (dictionary in hand) just so I could understand what he was saying. I find that many of the Met’s exhibition catalogs suffer from the disease of pompous language. In an age where museums are striving to become more relevant, it would help if the average reader could understand the language being written.




Filed under Currently Reading, Proper Clothing

10 responses to “Currently Reading: What Clothes Reveal

  1. I enjoyed that book a lot too–it was chock full of useful information for me, as I was researching 18th century clothing and usage at the time.


  2. Interesting review of the book, and I agree with your final comments on “pompous language.”

    (On a totally different note – I mentioned you today to a woman whose daughter is coming home for the holidays and would love to find some leather for sale somewhere in the eastern portion of N.C. The daughter uses it for projects (accessories such as handbags) at F.I.T., where she’s in her final year. Any ideas? Thanks in advance!)

    And many thanks for your informative posts!


  3. Definitely on the must-read list. Thank you. And my birthday is Saturday. Just, y’know, FYI.


  4. jacq staubs

    As always – a “must read”! I personally have a difficult time envisioning these silk gowns in Colonial Williamsburg. Perhaps more in Alexandria / Georgetown/ Richmond. The vest is of special interest to me. My paternal ancestors ( 2 aunts) I am told were vest makers / early Georgetown merchants ( 18TH. century )Washington , DC. I have always wanted to research them – never have had time.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. What a wonderful review. I especially enjoyed your last paragraph. I have read many of Linda’s publications and feel exactly as you do. Her clear and concise manner gives life to her subject matter.


  6. Thank you for this interesting review. I’ll get my university to buy it.


  7. seweverythingblog

    Totally agree with you about the “pompous” language of catalogs put together by museum curators. This book sounds delicious – on my way to search for it. Thanks for sharing it. I especially love to read up on American history around and just after the Revolutionary War/Independence

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Dee

    Thank you for sharing this interesting book. Regarding pockets – could you clarify if petticoat was being used in the 18th century sense, as an outer garment (what would now be referred to as a skirt)? I have never come across anything indicating that the pocket would be worn under the undergarments, but perhaps the book indicates whether there are any extant under-petticoats which include slits to access pockets?.


  9. Pingback: Fashion Queens – Southeastern Region Symposium in Charlotte, NC | The Vintage Traveler

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