A timeless collection of historic fashion

April 17, 2005|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Since its founding in 1885, the Historical Society of Harford County has been a repository for furniture, books, documents and other items donated by county residents.

Over the years, people have also donated clothes - including items that date to the Civil War. And now, for the first time, a selection of the society's antique clothes is on display. The show, Three Centuries of Clothing and Accessories, takes place at the Hays House Museum in Bel Air, a 1788 former home that volunteers run as a museum.

"These are mainly items from Harford County that people have donated through the years and we have accumulated here," said Mary Cardwell, a volunteer at the historical society. "Somebody will come in and say, `this is my great-grandmother's so and so, do you want it?' And, of course, we accept it."

The museum is set up like a house, with a dining room, kitchen and two upstairs bedrooms, all furnished with donations from a variety of time periods. The antique clothes are arranged throughout the rooms, mostly on headless, handless mannequins.

In one tableau, a bride and groom stand in front of the fireplace in the parlor. They are an odd couple, because the bride's lacy ensemble was made in 1914 and the groom's black suit is about 35 years older.

In a scene in the dining room, two elegantly dressed women pose in late-1800s gowns beside a teapot and saucers, while a more matronly black outfit adorns a stockier, curvier mannequin in a corner.

The dining room mantel displays several pairs of shoes. In the kitchen, a hunting outfit, a collection of women's day caps and other items are on display.

Upstairs, one room is devoted to children's clothing - mostly frilly white dresses and christening gowns - and another to undergarments and nightclothes, ranging from an 1880s bodice to garters from the 1950s. A few spinning wheels are in the room, too.

On the same floor, a tiny alcove is crowded with hats and hatboxes. By the entrance, a mannequin sports an elegant 1920s going-away outfit to wear after a wedding. The matching cloche hat is next to it.

Throughout the display, typewritten papers in plastic holders provide a self-guided tour, telling some history about the pieces.

The idea of an antique clothing exhibit had been discussed for years, Cardwell said, and the planning began last summer.

Before the exhibit, the clothes had been stored in archival boxes at the historic society headquarters, a former post office in Bel Air. Going through the boxes was fascinating, Cardwell said. "We oohed and aahed because of the fabrics, the beautiful lace."

But researching the items, and in some cases restoring them, was a major assignment for the group of volunteers in charge of the project. Some of the clothing was in better shape than others, and all the documentation had to be confirmed.

The group did extensive research before cleaning the clothes. Some items were vacuumed, and a few were washed.

Some volunteers attended seminars on clothing restoration and invited a costume and textile specialist, Colleen Callahan of Richmond, Va., to visit, with the help of a grant from the Harford County Cultural Arts Board.

"We did try to get information and do the best conservation job we could," said Betsy Lehmann, one of the volunteers.

Callahan urged the volunteers to rip out seams and remove some lacing from the oldest item in the collection, a bodice from the late 1700s, arguing that it had been altered at a later date, probably so a child could wear it as a costume. "We were afraid," admitted Lehmann, but they did it.

Another volunteer, Susan Wooden, said she was grateful to have so much responsibility. "There aren't that many places where people like us, who appreciate historic clothing, can actually work with them," she said.

But one of the most difficult tasks was unexpected - the group could not find mannequins with the correct proportions for the clothes. Because of corsets, women had much smaller waists.

Volunteer Kathy Scholl realized she would have to make the mannequins. She started by filling small-sized shirts with padding, and then she added surgical gauze, stuffing it where needed. Many rolls of duct tape were used. Arms were made with thin wires inside them, so they could hold positions. Lehmann said the volunteers originally wanted heads on the mannequins, complete with wigs, so they could hold hats, but realized that plan was too ambitious.

Heads or no, the exhibit has been bringing visitors to the museum and has inspired a fresh round of clothing donations, Lehmann said. Now that the volunteers have learned how to put on a vintage fashion show - and because they already have the mannequins - they may do it again. Next, they're considering a display of wedding gowns.

The show runs through May 29. The museum is open from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays and is at 324 Kenmore Ave., Bel Air. Admission is $3 for adults, $2 for students and seniors.

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