Andover Historical Society is being transformed into a Main Street boutique from yesteryear with the help of 25 accessorized mannequins that offer a glimpse at fashionable moments from the past.
“Behind the Seams, Stories of Clothing, 1790 to 1920” uses costumes, accessories, quilts and samplers drawn from the society’s extensive costume and textile collection to tell tales from 130 years of clothing history in Andover.
The exhibit — arranged throughout the society’s Amos Blanchard House on Main Street — will be officially unveiled on Sunday with an opening reception. Funded in part by a 2013 Partnership Grant from Essex National Heritage Commission, the show runs through April 2014.
More than 30 volunteers have been involved in the planning and installation of the exhibition, contributing more than 1,500 volunteer hours to bringing the display to fruition, Carrie Midura of the society said. An accompanying catalog will be published in September and exhibit-related programs will take place each month through next April.
Midura said the exhibit was prompted by visitors’ curiosity of the dresses and other apparel on display in the museum. She said one of their first questions often is, “Who wore it and what event did they go to?”
Unfortunately, however, those answers often escape local historians.
“The dresses in the society’s collection have been lovingly cared for over the years, but for many dresses, the story of who wore it and why has been lost,” Midura said.
Still, while the original wearer of the outfits may not be known, Midura said there are still many stories the dresses can tell.
Dig deeper and one learns that the dresses speak of times when fabric was a valuable resource, expensive to buy and used and reused wisely, the society explains.
The clothing tells tales of Victorian invention, both the sensible and the ridiculous. The pieces speak to the rigid social rules of Edwardian times and later the new economic and social freedom enjoyed by women after World War I.
In her prepared material on the show, exhibit curator and historical society board member Angela McBrien sets the tone for the first scenes in the display.
In 1790, McBrien reports that while advances in textile production resulting from the Industrial Revolution were well under way in Europe, things were just beginning in New England. Samuel Slater opened his first mill in Rhode Island in 1790, but it was a few years before the mills of Lowell began production. Textiles at the time were either imported or homespun. They were expensive to buy or time consuming to produce, she writes.
A striking circa 1815 dress featuring a detailed bodice bears testament to the era, McBrien notes. While it was clearly crafted by a skilled seamstress, she says a look at the back of the dress shows where the maker ran out of fabric. The back panel features delicate, crisscrossing seams where the fabric had to be pieced together before it was cut out. Since fabric was too valuable to discard, the seamstress had no option but to piecemeal the rest of the dress.
Even after production of fabric became more mechanized and material became more readily available, the cost remained relatively expensive, resulting in the make-do-and-mend attitude continuing into the mid-1800s, she writes. A maternity dress from the 1860s retains stitching marks on the bodice from its earlier incarnation as a day dress. The frugal-minded mother-to-be simply added extra fabric to the front of the dress so she could continue wearing it during pregnancy.
While the invention of the sewing machine freed women from time-consuming and tedious hand sewing, McBrien writes that women still dedicated the same amount of time to making their dresses, using the opportunity to trim their designs with frills and flounces. Several of these elaborately fashioned dresses of the late 19th century are also on display.
One of the last dresses in the exhibit is a knee-length, black beaded dress worn by Rebecca Rim of Andover to her daughter’s engagement party in the 1920s. The choice of dress would have been unthinkable 20 years before Rim donned it, during a time when black was considered the color of mourning and legs were best left unseen.
“Maybe during the party Rim looked back to when she was her daughter’s age at the height of the Edwardian era with its heavily corseted figures and complex rules about wearing the appropriate outfit for the time of day and the event.
“And, as for having a hemline at the knee! In Edwardian times, there was only a certain kind of woman who showed her legs in public. But the advent of World War I and the entry of so many women into the workforce forced fashion to adapt and become much less restrictive. Corsetry was eased and hemlines rose,” the exhibit notes say.
By 1926, hemlines had reached the knee and a woman’s outfit weighed about one-10th of its Victorian equivalent. The display culminates with dresses reflecting the freedoms enjoyed by women in the 1920s.
“These are just some of the many stories that will be told in the exhibit,” Midura said.
“They are not the first thing you think of when looking at the dress; rather, they are underneath, slightly hidden ... stories that are `Behind the Seams.’”
If You Go
What: “Behind the Seams, Stories of Clothing, 1790 to 1920,” a self-guided exhibit of Andover fashion through the years
When: Opening Sunday, July 28, with reception from 3 to 5 p.m. Runs through April 2014.
Where: Andover Historical Society, 97 Main St., Andover
How: Free admission. Regular exhibit hours Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Call 978-475-2236 or visit www.andoverhistorical.org.