Tag Archives: history museum

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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Mount Airy Regional History Museum

I am a fan of museums, and throw in the word history in the name and I’ve just got to pay a visit.  On a recent trip to a flea market, we made a stop in Mount Airy, North Carolina. I’ve written about Mount Airy in the past. It is a thriving little town in the northern North Carolina foothills; thriving because of its association with the 1960s television series, The Andy Griffith Show.  But there’s more to Mount Airy than Andy, and the Mount Airy Regional History Museum was there to educate us.

One never knows what to expect when visiting a small regional history museum. There’s the very good, and unfortunately, the very, very bad. I suppose a lot of the difference is due to the amount of money available to each museum. I suspect that history museums are not terribly high on the county budget priority list.

Local museums are also often a victim of donations. Several years ago I had a long and insightful discussion with the director of a small history museum in another NC town. That museum had, in the past, had such a liberal policy concerning donations that almost anything was accepted into the collection. As a result, the museum had  six large spinning wheels, a dozen treadle sewing machines and nineteen vintage typewriters.

So many small museums end up being old stuff warehouses. Over the years I’ve been in many museums that are pretty much the same, with the usual assortment of old tools, spinning wheels, and taxidermied wildlife. But this was not (thankfully) what we found in Mount Airy.

Instead, the museum truly tells the story of the town and the surrounding area, All the exhibits are place specific. Of couse I was mainly interested in the textiles and clothing, but I also enjoyed learning about the Native inhabitants of the region and the very important granite industry.

There were actually two exhibits on textile manufacture, one of home manufacture of the early settlement, and the other on the cotton knit manufacturing that was formed in the region in the early twentieth century. Part of the home manufacture exhibit is above, and it uses period photographs and artifacts to explain how people made their textiles and clothing at home.

And, yes, there was a spinning wheel in the exhibit, but it was used within the proper context. They also had this giant loom set up in the middle of the room. These are sometimes referred to as “barn looms” as they certainly did not fit into the small pioneer homes. I’m betting there are still dozens of these in barns scattered across the eastern US.

At one time Mount Airy had several factories that made socks, underwear, and other cotton knit items. That green machine made socks, and actually, some small makers across the South still use similar machines.

The long underwear in the background had a label that sort of rang a bell. It was not until we left the museum that I remembered where I’d just seen the name.

In the next block down the street was the old Spencer’s factory.  In business for over 100 years, Spencers closed in 2007, and it looks like the buildings are being converted to condos.

There were also quite a bit of clothing on display as well. Another celebrity from Mount Airy is country singer Donna Fargo. This fringed mini dress was worn by her for performances at Disneyland in 1973.

This dress was described as an “… an antique lace top and skirt worn by Donna Fargo, was featured on her 1981 album, Brotherly Love.” To be honest, it looks more like an assemblage of old lace pieces made into an ensemble, a practice not unknown at the time.

There were some actual antique clothes, all worn by residents of the town. The 1890s suit above was a wedding dress worn by a member of a prominent Mount Airy family.

This dress was made by an unidentified bride, who also made the lace.

The wearer of this (1905ish?) dress was not identified either, but I thought the presentation was quite nice.

Another resident of Mount Airy who went on to fortune (if not actual fame) was Katherine Smith Reynolds. I’ve written about her before, as she was the owner of Reynolda House, and her husband was the founder and owner of RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company.

But if I had to pick a favorite, it would be this girl’s basketball uniform from JJ Jones High, which was a segregated Black high school. The museum has a great display of artifacts from the school, along with an explanation of how Jim Crow laws affected the educational system.

Outside the museum is a tribute wall of sorts, that honors people who were important in making Mount Airy what it is today. It warmed my heart to see the textile mill factory worker included in the tribute.

And here’s a close up view just to make sure you could see that the statue is made from bricks.

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