What Windsor Wore: 

Exploring History Through Dress



August 31, 2001 – August 16, 2002

North Gallery



Clothes send messages. 

What we wear can reveal our personalities, our sense of style, even our identities to others. 


What Windsor Wore: Exploring History Through Dress examined the messages sent by Windsor residents through their clothing.  Exploring the clothing and personalities of the wearers provides insight into the lives of real Windsor men, women and children.  Their clothes can tell us about their work and social status, the choices they made as consumers, and what sort of relationship they had with fashion over a period of more than two hundred years.  By looking to individual Windsorites and looking closely at their clothing we can interpret the messages their clothes sent and begin to learn about their society and culture. 


What Windsor Wore featured clothing and accessories, but also focused on historical sources that reveal details regarding fashion and dress.  Letters, business papers, portraits, and oral histories were all used in the exhibition to construct a picture of how and why Windsor people dressed the way they did. 


The exhibition focused on four characters in Windsor’s past—Hannah Hayden, William Shelton, Nancy Toney, and Mary Clark Huntington—chosen because of the wealth of extant information regarding their lives and their dress.   


Hannah Hayden, born in Windsor in 1777, moved just south of Cooperstown, New York, with her husband around 1805.  Between 1806 and 1822 Hannah wrote regularly to her Windsor family and these letters provide rich details of her life as a wife, mother of twelve, and textile producer in frontier New York.  The objects in the exhibition that represented Hannah included a patch of homespun wool, a needlecase, baby shoes, and sewing scissors. 


Hannah wrote often about clothing, and this correspondence was highlighted in the exhibition.  For example, she wrote to her sister in 1809, “Alla if you dont want you[r] gown or gloves you may send them back for me to wear next summer.”  Hannah’s correspondence reveals that her family wore hand-me-downs from Windsor and that she was constantly spinning, weaving, and sewing in an attempt to keep her family decent.  Letters from a visiting sister home reveal the connection between Windsor and Hartford; Windsor women often had Hartford seamstresses make their dresses.  These clothes traveled great distances—from Hartford to Windsor, to as far as frontier New York.


William Shelton’s hats also traveled long distances.  Shelton was a partner in the Windsor hatmaking business of Shelton and Pease from the late 1820s through the 1850s.  Shelton made top hats of beaver, nutria (a South American rodent used when beaver was in short supply), coney (rabbit) and wool.  He shipped unfinished hats by steamboat from New Haven to his buyers in New York.  These wholesalers finished them before selling them to shops in New York, Boston, and even New Orleans. 


Shelton’s buyers often complained about the quality of his hats, as evidenced in this comment from a New York customer in 1830:  “We are told by the finisher that your hats. . .draw in finishing & they are not stiff enough & not quite wide enough in brim & quite too long in Nap. . . please clip them Shorter & forward with dispatch.”  Many of the letters to Shelton refer to fashion and often request that he make the hats in “the New York fashion” or the “current fashion.”  Shelton’s papers reveal that fashion played a significant role in men’s as well as women’s dress from Windsor to New Orleans and beyond, as far back as the 1800s.     


One’s ability to stay fashionable depended on money.  Only those Windsor residents with the means to buy new clothes could wear the current style.  A woman such as Nancy Toney (1775-1857), the last slave in Connecticut, could not wear new, fashionable clothes.  Without written records or any clothing in our collection belonging to slaves or African Americans from the early 1800s, how did we know how Toney looked?  An important portrait of Toney, loaned by the Loomis Chaffee School, was on view in What Windsor Wore.  While Toney did not leave us the rich written records that we have for Hayden and Shelton, the painting provides a remarkable image.  She is in her work clothes—a simple blue dress, apron, and fichu (a scarf worn around the neck)—at her spinning wheel.  In this instance, the visual arts provide important clues to our understanding of how servants and slaves looked in Windsor’s past.


By Mary Clark Huntington’s day, photography was common, and photographs, clothing, written records, and oral histories were used to explore Mrs. Huntington and her family.  Her imposing 1901 house still stands on Broad Street and the Society’s costume collection includes many of her dresses and accessories from the first half of the twentieth century. 


Mary Huntington was a wealthy woman, and her flapper dresses, silk shoes, coral-colored stockings, rhinestone-encrusted shoe buckles and elaborate hats create an image of a well-dressed woman with her own flair.  As her granddaughter recalled, Vogue magazines sat at her bedside next to the Hartford Courant until the day she died.  She loved clothing that was decorated and in brilliant colors like “red, coral, lime green, sapphire blue.”  The section of What Windsor Wore devoted to Mary Clark Huntington revealed how many sources of information, from clothing to family memories, can help to create an image and an understanding of one of Windsor’s most stylish women.


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Copyright © 2006 by Windsor Historical Society of Windsor, Connecticut, Inc.