Last weekend it was time for a short excursion (ok, 12 hours on a train) to Colonial Williamsburg. While I’ll spare you all the fun and excitement I had with my friend watching a bunny making a box hop across the room, waving “hi” to sheep across a field, eating way too much, finding bald eagles, and plotting how we might be able to freak out all the ghost tours passing by the house in the historic area, I will tell you all about our museum visit. We specifically visited the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum to see the exhibit “Printed Fashions: Textiles for Clothing and Home”. We’re both textile and fashion geeks, so we were giddy with excitement as we approached the steps of the Public Hospital for Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds, also called the Eastern Lunatic Asylum during the Civil War. An appropriate place for a couple of 18th-century fashion lunatics right? But wait, we are serious scholars of fashion history!
Upon entering the room we first saw the large projection video of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation employees dressed in reproduction 18th-century fashions. I was particularly awestruck by the men’s tailoring, I won’t lie. When we reached the cases containing the extant textiles, I was immediately struck by how small the clothes were! Quite a few of them appeared familiar because they were featured in the Foundation’s publications written by Linda Baumgarten; Costume Close-Up and What Clothes Reveal, specifically. I took photos of almost everything for my own reference, and most of the objects have had photos previously published anyway, so I don’t feel too guilty about sharing my photos.
The textiles featured were printed between about 1720 and 1820, and the earliest ones were printed in India. In the 18th-century there began to be some printing in North America, and indeed some of the motifs featured have an American influence. Some, including a textile featuring George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, were printed in England for export to the American market. Think about that for just a moment!
Contrary to what we might have been taught in the past, printed textiles are not just for the fancy-pants gentry, rather they were available to every level of society. The fancy-pants among them simply had better quality printed textiles, perhaps containing more colors than would have been available for the lower sorts to purchase. Hand-painted Indian chintzes with multiple colors would have been the most expensive. Some of our favorite items were actually jackets, worn mainly by the Dutch, as well as others in continental Europe and in the mid-Atlantic colonies. While we don’t feel that they are appropriate for us to reproduce for our own use (I actually copied a few, then sold them to other ladies in the appropriate colonies who would get more use from them), we could appreciate their beauty and the incredible printed fabrics from which they were made.
It is also somewhat astonishing that they have survived in relatively good condition. There were jackets, gowns, quilts, men’s banyans and caps, pockets, stomacher backings, waistcoats, children’s clothing, hats, and aprons, as well as furniture items.
I took lots of photos so that I would always have them, but I wish I’d spent just a little more time in there with a notebook, even though I have the publications written by Ms. Baumgarten, the Senior Curator of Textiles and Costumes. The exhibit is well worth a visit! Please also check out the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s You Tube channel, which discusses the exhibit, and offers a behind the scenes tour of all the textiles (not just the printed ones).
We also checked out some additional clothing objects at the American Revolution Museum in Yorktown, where we found shoes, clothing, and dolls to excite our fancies.
There isn’t enough time or space for me to post every photo I took of every textile, including the men’s suits and waistcoats, and the early 19th-century garments, but I’d encourage you all, dear readers, to either visit the museum, or at the very least check out the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s E-museum via the links posted. The archives are searchable! DO IT!!!!