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A Century of Style

Special Occasion Dressing 1860-1960––Exhibition Celebration with former Vogue Editor on Sept 8



Photos by Pamela Hovland

The average American woman owns seven pairs of jeans. She also owns 27 pairs of shoes. If she’s anything like me, she also opens her closet doors (or walks into a designated room lined with custom shelving and color-coded storage boxes) and proclaims she has nothing to wear. Let’s face it. Most of us have way more coats, dresses, skirts, pants, sweaters, hats, scarves, handbags, jewelry—even yoga pants—than we need. 

A Century of Style, a new exhibition at the Wilton Historical Society, offers a glimpse into the special occasion clothing the Society has amassed over the decades. The Society’s basement functions like a walk-in closet, and it is packed to overflowing with treasures documenting the lives of Wiltonians past. There are racks and racks of carefully wrapped and tagged clothing and accessories for men, women and children, representing every decade beginning around 1740. The archive includes wedding gowns and suits, mourning coats, infant-christening outfits, hostess dresses, even a whole collection of nightshirts. And there are a plethora of shoes—about 350 pairs. 

The Society’s newly unveiled exhibition is due, in part, to a renewed interest in the fashion of early Wiltonians. In the recently redesigned entrance gallery we learn that in 1860 our New England village was home to more than 150 shoe cobblers (at a time when Wilton’s population was a mere 2208). A pair of wedding shoes dating from 1741 is the oldest item in the collection; a red silk men’s waistcoat is dated as approximately 1750. Many of the items have faded paper hangtags listing their provenance in careful graphite penmanship. 

Nick Foster, the Historical Society’s Collections Coordinator, says the total number of items in the archive is estimated to be around 2,000. For the current show, the curatorial team culled examples from each decade between 1860 and 1960. On display are special occasion dresses including a two-piece white cotton tea gown that conjures up the romantic aesthetic of contemporary designer Stella McCartney; a pink and blue lace and velvet bridesmaid dress that would be at home in Raf Simon’s vintage inspired fall runway show for Dior, and a Chanel-esque sheer bejeweled black flapper dress as ‘on trend’ today as it was over 100 years ago.

“It is rather impressive, that in a town the size of Wilton, that such an extensive collection of clothing, shoes, and accessories has been collected and preserved at the Wilton Historical Society,” says WHS board member and curator Catherine Romer. “Many of the items donated are from individuals who actually lived in Wilton, thus telling us stories about the people who lived here years ago in this town we call home.” 

The featured clothing ranges from hand-made to mass-produced and reflect cultural and social changes through length, size, and exposure. Kim Mellin and Allison Sanders, the Society’s co-executive directors, explain that ‘special occasion’ status is likely the reason these items have survived. As most of this clothing was intended to have limited wear, due to the delicateness or cost of the materials used, the dresses and accessories on exhibit received better care from their owners. Perhaps the wearers (who were often the donors) also recognized their value as objects with cultural significance—documenting a particular time and tradition in Wilton’s history.

During the 1700s, “most clothing was kept in trunks or other furniture,” explains Foster. “The clothes hangar wasn’t really invented until the 1860’s (patented by a man from New Britain CT), so hanging your clothes in a closet wasn’t really viable until then. And people didn’t own a lot of clothing so it wasn’t until the late 1800’s that closets became the main storage space for someone’s wardrobe. Around that time, closets begin to expand as well, given that the increased availability of mass produced garments.”

The exhibition got me wondering. What do Wiltonian’s closets, and the special occasion clothing inside them, say about who we are, what we value, and how we live in 2018? What’s important for us to know regarding the way our clothing is designed, produced, distributed, worn and cared for? And which items will be worthy of closer examination 100 years from now? One can’t help but wonder if yoga pants will survive the test of time. August 25 through October 6  wiltonhistorical.org


Exhibition Celebration
Guest of Honor Jade Hobson, former editor at Vogue Magazine. Join us for a glass of something bubbly, and a look at a century's worth of women's special occasion fashions on Saturday, September 8 from 3:30 - 4:30
All are invited. No charge.

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