Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Garments and Textiles from the Federal Period at Dumbarton House


Before I write about yesterday's Dumbarton House tour, I want to cover Linda Eaton's excellent presentation on the textile trade and the federal period from last Thursday. Gleaning the most interesting tidbits from my copious notes was difficult, since everything she spoke about was fascinating to me (I did, after all, write my thesis on George Washington's attire...), but here are some of the most insightful bits:

-the textile industry comprises both agriculture and manufacturing, since it includes both the farming process (cotton, linen, wool) and the weaving/finishing/printing processes . It therefore serves a unique place in the development of a fledgling nation like the United States during the federal period.

-Because textiles were frequently woven, finished, and worn in different places, tracing the origins of a garment or textile can be particularly tricky. Even the subject matter of a textile's imagery can be deceiving-- textiles with motifs of American Independence were printed for the French market in the mid-1780s!
- City directories can be a useful source of research information. Eaton used the New York City directory, which identifies trades, to find 8 calico printers in the city in 1811.

Eaton spoke about dyestuffs, printing methods, types of textiles, and a number of other fascinating and specialized topics that I won't recount here- but needless to say, it left me with many ideas for research and a deeper appreciation for Federal Period garments and textiles that leads me to the next topic- last night's tour!


Yesterday evening, I attended a Curator's Tour of the exhibit "Preparing for the Ball: Costume of the Early Nation" at Dumbarton House, led by curators Scott Scholz and Mary Doering. Mr. Scholz is the curator at Dumbarton House, and Ms. Doering is a celebrated costume collector whose pieces comprise the majority of the exhibition. It was a delight for a number of reasons. First, Dumbarton House is a beautiful building with nicely appointed period rooms (Scholz told us that they are aiming to phase the rooms into an approximation of their appearance at the time of residence of the house's first owner, Joseph Nourse). Second, the combination of insights from Scholz, who focused on objects in the House's collection, and Doering, who focused on attire and textiles from her collection, was very enlightening. Finally, our small tour, made up mostly of costume enthusiasts, was treated to the additional expertise of two costume curators/conservators from the Smithsonian Instititute who had come to see Doering and join the tour and generously shared their knowledge with us.

My only gripe was that we didn't have enough time! There were a number of objects of interest in the house both within the exhibition and as part of the period rooms, but because we were running behind I didn't have enough time to take a good look at them all. Many of the costumes from Doering's collection had been purchased from Cora Ginsburg, the premier garment and textile dealer in the United States (now Cora Ginsburg LLC, run by Titi Halle). A quick aside- an associate at Cora Ginsburg, Leigh Wishner, sometimes guest lectures in the FIT Fashion and Textile Studies program and lent us a pair of her Louboutins for our exhibit!

My favorite pieces from the exhibit were a blue damask man's banyan (dressing gown), a green wool morning dress from about 1800-1815 (I need another look to tell more specifically!), and a white silk evening gown in Dumbarton House's collection. There are also a number of fashion plates from the federal period, many from Ackermann's Repository of Fashion (LACMA has a number of these as well).

Photo of Dumbarton House by dbking on Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

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