Closet filled with clothes - and history

Severna Park resident has collected more than 2,000 pieces of antique attire dating from 1770 to 1980

December 16, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Sun

Standing in the living room of her house, Heather Hook slid a long, brown plaid dress, made around 1863, onto a mannequin, and then straightened the skirt.

She pointed out blood stains that were splattered all over the skirt. When she purchased it, the family she bought it from told her that it had been worn by a Civil War nurse, she said.

"It's hard to take care of dresses like this," said Hook, 38, of Severna Park. "You can't wash it because the fabric is so old."

The dress is one of more than 2,000 articles of antique clothing, dating from 1770 to 1980, that Hook has collected in recent years.

Her extensive collection has helped establish her in the antique clothing world, and local museums are calling on her to display her items, she said.

"I think in our lives, nothing is more personal than our clothing," Hook said. "And clothing tells a lot about the people who wore it."

Hook started her collection for practical reasons. While a student at Towson University, she dated a man who participated in Civil War re-enactments. Around 1990, they joined the Second Delaware Civil War re-enactment group, she said.

Hook visited local antique shops where she looked for period clothing. At one shop, she found a light green silk dress made around 1855. It cost about $16.

"I was astonished to see that such things existed," said Hook, who works as a paralegal.

She was captivated. She found items at auctions in Massachusetts, Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, and she bought items on eBay, she said.

She bought some items to examine the way clothing was constructed, so she could make her own period costumes. The sleeves tell a lot, she said. Sewing techniques also tell a lot about when clothing was made.

"There is a big difference between clothing that was hand-stitched, and clothing that was made with a sewing machine," she said. "Since sewing machines were not invented until the 1860s, anything made before then was not made with a sewing machine."

Because of her interest in the Civil War, she focused primarily on that era's clothing, she said. Over the years, she said she has acquired dozens of unique pieces.

There's the skirt that was worn by a North Carolina house slave. And the long day dress that has flowers hand-painted on it.

In an upstairs bedroom at her house, she had several dresses displayed on mannequins that were made out of satin, silk, wool and linen.

In addition to the clothing, she has some furnishings that would have come in handy during the Victorian era -- from 1837 until 1901, she said.

One item is called a petticoat table. A mirror on the bottom half of the table was used by women to make sure their petticoats were not showing, she said.

Other items in her collection include men's and children's clothing, shoes, petticoats, corsets and clothing accessories.

She keeps the clothing in every room of her house, she said. She stores it in acid-free boxes that cost about $40 each, and she wraps the articles in acid-free paper that costs about $40 for 200 sheets, she said.

Hook first showed her clothing at the Hoops & Bustles: Women Traveling on the 19th Century Railroad exhibit at the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore, she said. She was asked to do an exhibit of clothing that would have been worn by women who traveled between the 1820s and 1900, she said.

The museum asked her to exhibit the clothing because it was looking for a way to capture a female audience, rather than just men, said Jennifer Legatees, who was the assistant director of education at the museum at the time.

"We wanted to develop a different program to include women's history," said Legatees, who is now the director of a Smithsonian-affiliated museum, the Southern Museum of Civil War & Locomotive History in Kennesaw, Ga.

Legatees, who has worked in the museum field for about 14 years, says she has worked with other private collectors of antique and vintage clothing along the East Coast. But Hook's collection is one of the most extensive private collections that she has seen, she said.

"Not only does Heather have the original pieces of clothing and the accessories that were worn with them, she has an original photograph to go along with it," Legatees said.

And without collections such as Hook's, museums would not be able to do what they do, Legatees said.

"People don't donate items as much as we would like them to," she said. "And there is no way that nonprofits have the money to purchase these types of items. Being able to borrow from private collections is a nice complement to the museum collection."

Since the B&O exhibit, Hook has lent her clothing to museums and organizations such as the Daughters of the American Revolution and Historic Annapolis.

Her latest exhibit is at the Captain Salem Avery House Museum, in Shady Side.

Eventually she would like to donate her clothing to museums and living history sites such as Williamsburg, she said.

"Antique clothing is a part of history that is uniquely American," she said. "It belongs where history is told ... where other people can appreciate it. I feel guilty keeping it in boxes in my closet where no one else can enjoy it."

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