Clothing

Did you ever wonder why museums collect clothing? You might be wearing something that will one day be in a museum collection.


What makes clothing important? Clothing and accessories are an important tool for studying popular culture and social history. These artifacts help tell the story of status differences and class aspirations through the materials used and the cut of a garment. Clothing reflects gender differences and social mores that have changed over time. Clothing reflects behavior standards, manners, and the culture itself. Clothes provide examples of America's shifting economy and changing production techniques.

Detail of a silk dress which shows a banded sleeve, late 1830's

Detail of a silk dress which shows a banded sleeve, late 1830's. 1998.188.3

The American Textile History Museum's costume collection is the most recent collection to be established (1996). It includes a significant group of garments worn by Americans from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries. The collection includes men's highly ornamented waistcoats and women's pockets from the eighteenth century; nineteenth-century girls' printed cotton everyday dresses and men's work-shirts, as well as 1970s double-knit bell bottom trousers and a 1960s paper jumpsuit. About one-third of the collection is comprised of accessories. The Museum's main collecting focus is everyday clothing and the stories of the people who owned them.

Style worn by working women from 1917-1921. Maxine Shoes.

Style worn by working women from 1917-1921. Maxine Shoes. 1996.24.410-a-b

The Museum's collection of cotton prints is particularly strong in the period from 1870 to 1940 and includes samples manufactured by Cocheco, Arnold, Hamilton, and Merrimack Print Works, among others. Most are as crisp and vibrant as the day they were printed. Woolen and worsted samples from some of the United States' smallest and largest manufacturers show the wide variety of different colors and weaves that can be used to create splendid apparel fabrics.

Hat with silk flowers, c. 1970. 2004.314.7

Hat with silk flowers, c. 1970. 2004.314.7

Another collecting focus is clothing made of printed cotton throughout the 19th, 20th and, now the 21st centuries. This is a natural link to the Museum's collection of mass-produced printed samples, which is particularly strong between 1870 and 1940.

Americans continue to be fascinated with costume. The American Textile History Museum uses costumes in its public programs and exhibitions to tell important stories about the role of textiles in American culture.

Waistcoat with wool bargello patterned front, early 19th century. 2007.143.1

Waistcoat with wool bargello patterned front, early 19th century. 2007.143.1

To learn more about all aspects of costume history check out the Costume Society of America at www.costumesocietyamerica.com

Note: The Museum's Collections Department staff is available to researchers by appointment only and can respond only to phoned and mailed inquiries at this time.

"Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society."
~ Mark Twain, quoted in More Maxims of Mark, Johnson, 1927

"It is an interesting question how far men would retain their relative rank if they were divested of their clothes."
~Henry David Thoreau

"Distrust any enterprise that requires new clothes"
~ Henry David Thoreau

"The whole art of living is mirrored in fashion.."
~ Cecil Beaton

"Each age seeks its own image, the mirror of that image being the mirror of truth."
~ Christian Dior
The Chace Catalogue Looking for a conservator?
Check out the website for American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC): http://www.conservation-us.org.