As it is now, so it was in the beginning: Fashionable American women have always looked to Europe for guidance on what clothes to wear and when, where and how to wear them. The DAR Museum is taking a bright and breezy look at how our great-grandmothers and their mothers stayed in style in the days when news crossed the ocean in ships.
It's a rare chance to see these vintage dresses and gowns, which are seldom exhibited because of the fragility of centuries-old fabrics. Along with their fashions the museum relates some of the foibles and fates of the original owners.
Foreigners visiting America early on were impressed by how au courant the colonials were. "The quick importation of fashion from the mother country is really astonishing," wrote William Eddis in 1771. "I am almost inclined to believe that a new fashion is adopted earlier by the polished and affluent Americans than by many opulent persons in the great metropolis (London)."
New styles were taken from fashion plates, detailed, often hand-colored illustrations in such publications as Godey's Lady's Book.
Patterns were quickly produced and widely published to dressmakers and home seamstresses. Even Quaker ladies, barred from wearing jewelry or decorations, kept current by sewing accents into their dark but smartly tailored dresses.
Most farm women in the hinterlands and even pioneer women in wagon trains had at least one "best dress" that cunning alterations kept current enough to make a decent showing in town. As Miss C. F. Forbes told Ralph Waldo Emerson: "The sense of being well-dressed gives a feeling of inward tranquillity which religion is powerless to bestow."
American Women, American Fashion
Clothing From the DAR Museum Collection, through Sept. 9 at the DAR Museum; call (202) 879-3241.