Fashion Accessories from Head to Toe

The accessories that graced the ensembles of history are on display at the Colonial Williamsburg Art Museums in “Fashion Accessories from Head to Toe.” Curator Linda Baumgarten introduces the collection.


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter.

With us today is curator Linda Baumgarten, here to talk about a new exhibit at Colonial Williamsburg’s Art Museums called “Head to Toe.” Linda, thank you for being here today.

Linda Baumgarten: Thank you, my pleasure.

Harmony: Well, tell me what this exhibit is. What is the idea behind this collection of objects?

Linda: Well the full title of the exhibit is “Fashion Accessories From Head to Toe.” We’re going to be including 250 years of costume accessories, the kinds of things that people used to enhance their clothing. For example, a hat, a kerchief that they might wear around their necks, a pair of gloves, shoes, stockings, aprons – all of those auxiliary things that make clothing so much fun.

Harmony: I love the analogy you make between accessories in the when this exhibit starts in the 1700s compared to accessories of the present day. They’re really not that different.

Linda: Right. There are accessories that we use today have many of the same functions as they did in the 17th or 18th centuries. In some cases, they look a little bit like them, but with different materials, perhaps, or different technology.

One example might be, we have in the exhibit a wonderful little ladies’ day-timer, if you will, a calendar bound in red morocco leather and with silver fittings. It’s a beautiful little book that has pages for her appointments. It also has, for the year, I believe it’s 1794, it has phases of the moon, almost like a farmer’s almanac. It’s a tiny little thing, about three to four inches. Inside are still some penciled-in appointments that someone came to visit her on a particular day.

Now, what’s our modern equivalent? It might be your smart phone where you keep your calendar. Or it might be for some people a paper calendar that they hang in the kitchen and mark all of their appointments on the wall. So we do share that desire and need for accessories for practical as well as staus purposes.

Harmony: We talked about some functional accessories with the day timer and the calendar being equivalent to a smart phone. We also use fashionable accessories in very similar ways.

Linda: Right. We, for example, in the exhibit we’re going to be showing a grouping of handkerchiefs. These were printed on linen or cotton, and they’re large enough to wear as scarves around the neck in some cases.

Today, for example, I’m wearing a neck scarf that’s designed to coordinate with my outfit, but in these printed handkerchiefs that we’re showing in the exhibit, one of them, for example, is a hunting scene that shows the horses chasing the foxes in the fox hunt. There is a verse around the edges listing the fox hunting and all of the activities that the hunters are going through.

Harmony: When you’re looking at an object, and you’ve dated it for this exhibit, you’ve dated it to a specific range, in some cases a 20-year period. What kind of tools do you use, what kind of clues do those objects have that let you say so specifically, “this is from 1770 to 1790.”

Linda: That’s a really good question. We spend our lives learning how to correctly date an antique. It’s really a matter of lots of things. Part of it is knowing the techniques that were being used in the 18th or 17th century. If it’s roller printed, then it has to be after the advent of roller printing in the early 19th century, for example. The materials need to be right for the period, and we learn that by comparing our piece with pieces from other museums that are well-documented.

Then it’s a matter of looking at the style. Is the style correct for the era? If the handkerchief has figures on that are wearing 19th- century style clothing, rather than 18th, then we know it can’t date any earlier than what’s depicted on it. Just a whole range of stylistic, and then we get into science. Some objects might be made of a metal, for example, the alloy of which wasn’t known until the 19th century. So we can’t date that period any earlier than that alloy.

Harmony: And portraits play a large role, too, don’t they, in telling you how things were worn and when they were worn, and by whom?

Linda: Right. In fact, we spend a lot of time looking at portraits and prints, and that’s one of the nice things about this exhibit. Along with the groupings of the antiques, we’re going to be showing photographic enlargements taken from prints and paintings showing people using accessories similar to the ones on display right in front of that.

Harmony: We’ve got a lot of classes of accessories that we see in this exhibit, categories of objects that you’re displaying. Let’s talk first about, you’ve touched a little bit on kerchiefs. I think there’s such a surprising range of functions and types, just for handkerchiefs.

Linda: The handkerchiefs could be a functional thing that you just sneezed into. But then it could be something decorative. It could be something that people wore around their necks, or it could make a political statement. One of the handkerchiefs in the exhibit features the portrait of John Wilkes, who was a political figure in the 18th century.

Harmony: Another type of object that I like is the pocket. The transition between pocket that a woman might have carried with all the jumble of things she needed for going around town during the day, and how that transitions into what we now carry, which is the purse.

Linda: Right. During the usually the 17th and 18th centuries, women’s skirts were full, very full, wide skirts for the most part. Women wore a bad, essentially sort of teardrop-shaped bags around their waists. These could be 12 to 18 or 20 inches long. This was really sort of the handbag worn underneath the skirt. Women could switch them from gown to gown, because they were separate things that people tied around their waists.

When the clothes became very slim, about the 1790s to about 1800, you really didn’t want to ruin the lines of your nice, slim, clingy neoclassical gown with this big bulging pocket underneath. So women started carrying pocketbooks, sometimes called reticules. Even though our clothes today may have sewn-in pockets, we still carry the handbag, because very few clothes can carry all the stuff that we need with us every day.

Harmony: What’s the oldest object that you have in this exhibit?

Linda: The oldest object in the exhibit I believe is a pair of gloves that dates to about 1600 to 1620. These are men’s gloves and they have very elaborate cuffs, the kind of gloves that would have been presentation pieces almost, given as a gift or worn for a wedding, which is the case with these gloves. The man apparently wore them as his wedding gloves, they were very elaborate and that’s why they got saved.

Harmony: When you look at this collection of objects that have been saved and passed down for 400 years, does that say something about the nature of this collection, or the nature of what gets kept?

Linda: I think it says a lot about museum collections. We have a wonderfully strong museum collection here at Colonial Williamsburg. It also says something about the accessory, because it’s the fine objects that we tend to save. These gloves got saved because they were a man’s wedding gloves.

I, in my closet, might save my wedding dress, my wedding shoes -- something that I wore to a very special occasion. People will save the little christening dress. That’s part of the magic of a museum collection, that things got saved. It’s only happenstance that they got saved. It’s only through someone putting it away lovingly, and then it maybe getting forgotten for a number of years while it was just old-fashioned stuff.

Every bit of clothing goes through a period of just being old-fashioned, the kind of thing you really wouldn’t wear anymore, to then going back into the vintage category and then into the antique category. So they’re miraculous survivals in many cases. It’s our hope that everyone hearing this interview will come out and see the exhibit. How long will it be on, and where can they find it?

Linda: The exhibit is in the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum at Colonial Williamsburg. It opens January 29, 2011, and runs for about two years. It will close in the late summer or autumn of 2012.

We’re really grateful to Mary and Clint Gilliland of Menlo Park, California for making this exhibit possible. They have been good friends to Colonial Williamsburg over the years, and we’re excited that we could do a lot of things with this exhibit that their generosity has made possible

Harmony: Thanks for being with us today.

Linda: You’re welcome, my pleasure.