Yesterday I took a break from my laptop and headed off to Pottsgrove Manor, the 1752 mansion of prosperous colonial ironmaster, merchant, and judge John Potts (c.1710-1768). A large, beautifully restored house museum, the Manor is also the site of an fascinating exhibition called To the Manor Worn: Clothing the 18th c. Household, which runs through November 2, 2014.
There are several ways of displaying historic clothing. The most obvious is on mannequins. Some historic clothing, however, is too fragile for anything other than being laid flat, carefully arranged to support the delicate textiles. In addition, all old clothes need to be protected from sunlight, insects, dust, humidity, and the too-eager hands of visitors, which means sealed display cases, or at best a static display safely out of reach, in dimmed light.
But while all this preserves irreplaceable garments, it doesn't show how the clothes were worn. No matter their age, clothes were never intended to be museum pieces, but were worn and used. Clothes reflect both the lives and bodies of the wearers. Eighteenth century clothing showed the wearers' economic status, their age, their gender (no unisex jeans and tees back then), their occupations, and even their relationship to their environment.
A servant who worked in the kitchen wore simple, inexpensive clothing that allowed for ease of movement, and was made of fibers like linen or wool that were safer around the hearth's open flames. The mistress of the house, however, wore costly clothing that would display her family's wealth and success. Her imported silk, lace, and ribbons showed that she was above menial work and had servants to dress her and look after her clothes. Even the wide-spreading petticoats, flounced sleeves, and tall hairstyles were designed to look there best in the candlelight of a well-proportioned Georgian drawing room, making the wearer one more beautiful, expensive object on display.
The Pottsgrove exhibition cleverly conveys this by dividing their displays. In light-controlled galleries on the upper floor of the house are the fragile, original 18th c. pieces, drawn from various collections and historic properties in the area. These include lovely baby and children's clothes, silk gowns, embroidered waistcoats, and even a few very rare working-class garments. I'll be writing about some of my favorite things in future blogs.
The rest of the house shows how 18th c. clothing was truly worn through an entire household of dressed mannequins, arranged in tableaux. The clothes are all careful, handsewn reproductions of actual 18th c. garments that could have been worn by the manor house's various inhabitants: a young slave boy in the kitchen, a middle-class clerk in the office, the mistress of the house making plans with the housekeeper, a daughter in a riding habit in the front hall, and a tea for elegant guests in the front parlor. Because the fabrics are new, there's a true sense of the original vibrant colors of the period, and how those colors are also an indication of class distinctions. Accessories like shoes, caps, jewelry, and kerchiefs complete each figure, and tableaux with mannequins dressing reveal the undergarments of the different classes as well.
For visitors who have to touch, there are swatches of each garment's fabric available in each room. In this day of apps for everything, this exhibition features an excellent free printed guidebook that not only gives extensive detail about both old and new garments, but also includes a glossary of 18th c. textile terms and a select bibliography. The exhibition is part of the house tour, and admission is a very modest suggested donation of two dollars. To the Manor Worn has been popular with local school-groups, and if you're looking for a "family outing," the tableaux are interesting enough to engage kids.
Pottsgrove Manor is located in Pottstown, PA, the town founded by John Potts. In the 18th c., Pottsgrove was a two-day journey from Philadelphia; now, however, it's less than an hour's drive, and if you are in the area, I wholeheartedly recommend a visit! For more information, here is the link to the Manor's website, and here is there Facebook page.
Many thanks to Pottsgrove Manor Curator Amy Reis and the rest of the staff for making my tour both educational and enjoyable.
UPDATE: Lynn Symborski, Museum Educator at Pottsgrove Manor, was responsible for creating many of the reproduction garments and accessories in the exhibition. Her Pinterest page here shows many more of the dressed mannequins, plus details and background for her inspiration. Thank you for sharing, Lynn!
Photographs ©2014 Susan Holloway Scott.