Head to ToeHat and Shoe Fashions from Historic New England
Clothing is a language. The garments one chooses are a personal vision and a public message. Hats and shoes are fashionable punctuation, finishing an outfit with individual flair. Whether updating last year’s dress or purchased for a special occasion, accessories are directly connected to important moments and memories. They are part of our life story.
Dress—meaning the variety of body coverings humans wear every day—is both public and personal. Defining dress relies on two key concepts: fashion and style. Fashion is a cultural force. Style is a personal choice. To fashion is to make. To style is to manipulate and present. This exhibition invites viewers to experience hats and shoes from multiple perspectives.
New England was a center of American industrialization in the nineteenth century, known especially for its world-famous textile mills in Lowell, Massachusetts. In addition, millions of shoes, boots, slippers, bonnets, caps, and straw hats left the factories in Haverhill, Amesbury, and Lynn, Massachusetts, as well as dozens of other towns throughout the region. Small-scale production by homeworkers and boutique designers also contributed piecework and finished garments to consumers. New England entrepreneurial spirit imbued the hat and shoe industries.
Significant innovations in the nineteenth century, such as flexible, watertight footwear, patented arch supports, and substitutes for expensive imported straw bonnets, changed New England’s fashion landscape. Innovators built on existing expertise and technology, creating new materials, designs, and concepts.
Stylish women and men have a sense about how to tell their personal stories with clothing. Designer Bill Blass called it, “a matter of instinct.” Style applies equally to the designer, whose creations embody her or his vision against a backdrop of social trends, current events, and the larger historical narrative. Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, founder of one of the world’s most iconic fashion brands, once said, “Fashion fades, only style remains the same.” If clothing is a language, then style is an individual’s poem or essay, sentence or exclamation point.
Dressing up to go out—whether calling for tea or dancing at a disco—required accessories with particular flair.
The opposite of glamorous dancing shoes or elegant church attire, work wear is functional and durable.
For many New Englanders, going to worship services means putting on your best clothes, a special hat, and shining your shoes. For some, it also involves serious investment in fashionable labels and the latest trends.
Shape, materials, and even colors of hats and shoes are often understood as gender specific. Those connections—high heels and femininity, for example—have changed over time. Once worn by cavalry men and nobility, high heels were gradually adopted by both genders. Perception of gender and clothing can also be intentionally misconstrued, altered, or subverted by the wearer and the observer. Around the turn of the twentieth century women adopted straw hats previously worn by men, taking a gender-specific object and making it their own. The stylistic markers of gender have long been open to construction.
For centuries Western designers and tourists have voraciously consumed ideas, images, and entire costumes from other cultures. Until recently, most of the designs, techniques, and textiles were used without any acknowledgement of their meaning and importance. At the other end of the spectrum, many traditional artists maintained an important practice by making tourist souvenirs based on culturally significant art. The objects displayed here reflect those complex intersections of culture, art, and capital.
Shop windows filled with a tempting array of goods introduced Europeans and Americans to a new form of consumer culture in the early eighteenth century. Promenading down streets to view and purchase the latest items was called, “shopping.” While open markets continued to offer consumers alternatives for procuring goods, shops presented a heady combination of display and entertainment to entice customers.
Forming both the fabric and the embellishment of a hat, fur, and feathers and felt have never really gone out of fashion. But their very popularity caused great harm to the environment and the people who worked in the hat and shoe industries. Activism reflected in fashion and style can take many forms, from the formation of the Massachusetts Audubon Society in 1896 to a pink hat, one of thousands, knitted and worn at a 2017 protest march.