History Through Dress
August 31, 2001 – August 16, 2002
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
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.
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
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.
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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