Currently Reading: Spectrum of Fashion at Maryland Historical Society

The pandemic has really messed with the proposed exhibition schedules of museums. When Americans were finally, in the middle of March, told how bad the virus could be, museums big and small were shuttered, and plans were put on hold. Personally, I was planning a trip to a local history museum in South Carolina to help with the identification of a special sportswear piece that was to go on display last summer. Of course, that didn’t happen.

The Maryland Historical Society, now the Maryland Center for History and Culture had long been working on an exhibition of some of their costume holdings. The show was mounted, a symposium planned, and a catalog published, and then, nothing. It must have been a huge disappointment for all involved in this tremendous project. But all was not lost, because the exhibition eventually was able to open, and will remain so through December.

Not only that, but the symposium was moved online, and it was a delight. Actually one of the bright spots of the pandemic as been all the online content made available to the public by museums and fashion history groups. It’s been quite wonderful. As an attendee of the symposium, I was able to buy the catalog at a discount. And I was so glad I did.

I’ve talked before about how one way to support museums is to buy things from the museum shop. I especially love to buy books. Yes, I know I can get most of these purchases cheaper at Amazon, but while Amazon does not need my money, museums do.

Being a history person, I really do prefer exhibitions that come from a historical perspective rather than a design one. And that is pretty much the case when visiting a history museum. I find state history museums to be particularly interesting because the story of the state can be told through the garments worn by its citizens. This is what we get from Spectrum of Fashion.

The book starts with a history of the clothing collection at the museum. The museum began accepting gifts of clothing in the late nineteenth century, and by the 1940s it was actively soliciting donations. The collection grew quite rapidly, and in the 1970s several exhibitions were launched.

The budget for the clothing collection was quite small, but due to the meticulous work done by Enolliah Williams, seen above, the collection was carefully cataloged and stored. Her records continue to be an invaluable resource, even though she retired in 1985.

There is also an essay devoted to who is likely the most important designer to come out of Maryland, Claire McCardell. This 1955 dress used fabric designed by Marc Chagall. The McCardell holdings of the museum are quite extensive, many of them having donated by the McCardell family.

This cape and hat are part of a footman’s livery. The museum has several items of livery which came from the wealthy Ridgely family. The museum has worked with the Ridgelys’ home, Hampton National Historic Site, to learn more about the men who were formerly enslaved at Hampton, and who continued to work for the Ridgeleys.

This circa 1815-1820 pelisse was another of the Ridgely donations.It was likely worn by Eliza Ridgley. The Ridgely family is well-documented, so researchers at the museum have been able to match many of their garments with the name and biography of the wearer. I find this fascinating, because it was possible not just for the rich Ridgelys, but also for their servants.

One thing I love about this book are the beautiful photographs. Most of the garments are shown full-length, along with a large closeup showing details.

All that rouleaux trim was sewn by hand, and was stuffed with wool. This gave shape to the hem of the gown.

Many of the garments in the collection were made in Maryland, but Marylanders were (and probably still are) a cosmopolitan lot, and they often brought home clothing from trips abroad. This dress from Liberty of London is one of my favorites.

I love how the writers of the book give little insights into the wearer’s life.

So many fashion exhibitions feature only clothing worn by women, but I find that history museums are more inclusive, I dearly love a great man’s embroidered court coat.

And speaking of inclusive, fashion exhibitions (especially those at art museums) tend to feature the clothing of just the wealthy. But here we see a sweet late 1950s cotton frock made by Adina Robinson. When Adina died in 1966 at the age of twenty-nine, her clothes were all stored away, and years later were donated to the museum.

And finally, lets not forget that infamous upstart American king stealer from Baltimore, Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor. This ensemble was designed for her by Madame Grès in 1969 when Wallis was seventy-three years old. And under the skirt are hot pants. I can’t help but love this.

If you are from Maryland, you need this book. And even if you are not, you will love it.


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7 responses to “Currently Reading: Spectrum of Fashion at Maryland Historical Society

  1. What an eclectic range of clothing — not only the styles but also the purposes for which they were made. Thanks for sharing the “tour,” Lizzie.


  2. jacq staubs

    Interesting especially to me from Md. Looking up the Ridgely’s explains the court coat. The eastern shore colonial’s -like Wallis’s (Warfield) were the land “granted”. Wonder how much travel they did going back to court in the 1690’s.Working recently with the Key West Historical Society has defined spectrum -i think you know what i mean.


  3. Amanda Legare

    I keep going back to look at that trim on the evening dress. What a book/exhibition.


  4. I have read about Wallis’s hot pants worn at a late age. How I would love a photo of her in them! And what a treasure trove at the museum. I think your blog does a wonderful job highlighting these local treasures.


  5. Mim

    Those men’s court coats are some of the most beautiful garments ever – such exquisite embroidery. There are a few in the fashion museum in Bath and I always spend time admiring them.


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