J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, January 02, 2019

“Fashioning the New England Family” in Boston

The “Fashioning the New England Family” exhibit will be on display at the Massachusetts Historical Society through 6 April. It’s well worth a visit, especially because it’s free.

The webpage on the exhibit explains:
Fashioning the New England Family explores the ways in which the multiple meanings of fashion and fashionable goods are reflected in patterns of consumption and refashioning, recycling, and retaining favorite family pieces. Many of the items that will be featured have been out of sight, having never been exhibited for the public or seen in living memory. . . .

For the public, it is an opportunity to view in detail painstaking craftsmanship, discover how examples of material culture relate to significant moments in our history, and learn how garments were used as political statements, projecting an individual’s religion, loyalties, and social status.
The garments on display range from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. The ways they’re displayed are often as interesting as the clothing itself. In a couple of cases, beside the garment is a portrait of its owner wearing it. One quilted petticoat is a recreation by Colonial Williamsburg tailors based on a pattern copied from the original—which was destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. Tools show how clothing was made and repaired. Examples highlight how garments were remade or their fabrics reused.

The exhibit also features fashionable accessories, such as jewelry, shoes, and Abigail Adams’s pocket. One case is devoted to a rare example of a wig, wig case, powder, and related utensils. I was particularly struck by a walking stick that belonged to Thomas Hancock, shown here; I hadn’t known “fist canes” were a thing.
Given the expense of fashionable, high-quality clothing; the resources necessary to preserve those goods; and the Massachusetts Historical Society’s traditional supporters, upper-class fashion dominates the exhibit. But of course I looked for traces of “my guys,” the striving mechanics on the front line of pre-Revolutionary protests and military preparations, as discussed in The Road to Concord. Many of those men made it into the genteel class, but they struggled to get in and to solidify that status. Understanding fashion helped.

One item from “my guys” is shown at top: a hatchment that a young woman in the Pierpont family embroidered following the design of heraldic painters John and Samuel Gore. And there’s a whole display case devoted to objects from the family of William Dawes. He was a fashion icon in colonial Boston—the first time Dawes’s name appeared in the newspapers, it was because he got married in a suit of Massachusetts-woven cloth. That suit doesn’t survive, but the display includes homespun cloth from the Dawes family earlier in the century, a silk muff, bags and purses, and a kidskin bag that Dawes used to hold legal papers when he died in 1799.

For folks who can’t visit the exhibit before April, there’s also a Fashioning the New England Family book by guest curator Kimberly S. Alexander.

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