Past Present

What the minutiae of 19th century daily life can teach us about our wardrobes

Museums and clothing have a longstanding history together. The John L. Wehle Art Gallery is home to the fairly extensive Susan Greene costume collection: 3,000 garments spanning from the late 18th to the early 20th century (think many crinolined skirts and satin tuxes). It’s a collection that Karen Augusta, Antiques Road Show appraiser, calls “a gem” that “stands alone as one of the finest collections of its kind in North America”. So what is it that makes this particular collection so unique? Susan Greene kept everyday possessions belonging to men, women and children that no one thought people would want to see. Displayed in shiny glass cases are dish rags, undergarments, and beloved frocks that have been Frankensteined together over and over to resurrect the dead. Visitors see the material lives of New Yorkers from eras past, approachably presented.

The museum is situated in the Genesee Country Village & Museum, a historical village in Mumford, New York, complete with Ye Olden Shoppes. I got to wander through the collection with Bevin Lyn, Coordinator of Interpretive Programs, who I found walking through a cobbled street. In a full Jane Austen style get-up, Bevin gave me a tour of the collection, first recollecting how she came to the Genesee village. “As a child I was really into Jane Austen,” she says, “so when I came here I was like ‘Wow! These people are like me.’” Bevin worked in banking but came back to work the museum, linking herself with this past. She hasn’t turned back and I began to see why.

Thrifty Hist’ry
Since the Greenes collected the garments of the working and upper classes, a history of thriftiness is woven through the exhibition. Bevin points out that most New Yorkers “valued each and every garment [they owned]…so they patched, maintained and took care of [them]…and that’s why they survived today.” “Thrift” today conjures up exciting trips to Salvation Army to find quirky leftovers. A 19th century American’s idea of thrift was simply NOT discarding or giving away their clothes, but preserving them for their own usage. With a tighter economic climate, Bevin warns that “we’re having to come full circle.” Perhaps we can learn to take better care of our clothes by following the Wornette lead

“Without foundation there is no fashion”
Bevin quotes Christian Dior as she leads me through the incredibly user-friendly plexi-glass covered drawers of women’s undergarments. She talks of corsets and stays, words which perplex me at first – what is the difference between these undergarments? Push-up vs. just keeping them in place? My guide tells me that the terms are interchangeable. This collection encompasses that interesting time just after the French revolution when non-fussy, cotton shift dresses became popular and foundation garments thus evolved accordingly. Women did not want bone in their foundation garments, but opted for softer more flexible stays that allowed for greater movement, just like their dresses did. Much in the same way, we opt for sports bras- versus underwire cups and hydraulic cleavage pressure systems for our more bouncy pursuits.

Paisley Knock-offs
Staring at a case saturated in paisley, Bevin relates that paisley shawls were once a status symbol. Cashmere shawls in paisley designs were produced in Kashmir, India and were created by sewing needles and hand-weaving. Small sections would be sewn together so masterfully that seams were invisible. In the second half of the 19th century, paisley scarves were woven on looms in Paisley, Scotland. In Franc,e attempts were made to domesticate Indian goats which produced the soft wool, all in the hopes of replicating the pricey Indian original. When these “knock-offs” came out, Bevin emphasized that wealthy women were upset: “in the fashion articles of the time you’ll read that rich women think it’s so gauche that these poor women are copying them.” Lest we forget the Fendi baguette incident from Sex and the City.

The Wehle Gallery has put together a relevant fashion exhibit in that it has exposed many of the fashion concerns of the 19th century only to reveal they have become trendy again. The gallery however breaks with the prevailing style of museum exhibits by including numerous hands-on drawers, displaying cheap and chic garment examples, and on some fortuitous occasions, offering period-costumed tour-guides. These are some trends I wouldn’t mind having catch on.

photography // Stephanie Herold

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