Long before L.L. Bean boots were modeled by Brooklyn hipsters and Angela Adams’ handbags were draped over the shoulders of folks in Los Angeles, Mainers had a heightened sense of fashion.

In the 1870s, for example, fashion-conscious Maine residents knew the bulky style of women’s skirt known as “polonaise” was giving way to a much slimmer silhouette called “cuirasse,” from the French word meaning close fitting, like armor. When Hannah P. Adams of Belfast received her wedding trousseau around the time of this change in trends, it included a dress in the newer style, along with a knee-length jacket called a basque.

“Mainers have always been fashionable, and that’s something we see in our clothing collection,” said Jamie Kingman Rice, deputy director of the Maine Historical Society. “Because of ties to British shipping in the mid-1800s, people in places like Eastport and Belfast would have had access to the latest fashions and ideas in fashion. But we see that people in more rural areas were interested too.”

The idea that Mainers – at least some – have long exhibited a flair for fashion is the theme of an exhibit at the Maine Historical Society in Portland called “Northern Threads: Two Centuries of Dress at Maine Historical Society,” with about 50 ensembles from 1780-1889, including Hannah P. Adams’ dress, on view through July 30. The society’s clothing collection is so large the exhibition has been broken into two parts, with clothing from 1890-1980 on view Aug. 12 through Dec. 31.

The historical society is also currently hosting two other exhibitions that help illustrate Mainers’ connections to or obsessions with fashions over the past 200 years. “Cosmopolitan Stylings of Mildred and Madeleine Burrage” focuses on two Maine sisters who were artists and includes drawings from Paris fashion designers in the 1920s and ’30s. It’s on view through Sept. 24.

The other is “Representing Every Particular: John Martin’s 19th Century Fashion Illustrations,” featuring observations, opinions and drawings about local fashion from the journal of a Bangor businessman in the latter half of the 1800s, on view through Aug. 6.


Online versions of all three exhibitions are available to view at the Maine Historical Society’s “current exhibitions” page.

“Northern Threads: Two Centuries of Dress at Maine Historical Society” is a two-part exhibit.  Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Rice, lead curator of “Northern Threads,” had started preparing the show for the state’s bicentennial in 2020, but the pandemic and other issues pushed the exhibit back. So now it’s open during the historical society’s bicentennial year, which is appropriate, Rice says, because it highlights part of the society’s collection of some 3,000 garments.

The “Northern Threads” show marks one of the few times the historical society has put so many pieces of clothing on view, Rice said, as clothing exhibits are pretty labor intensive. Many pieces are light and fragile and have to be handled and displayed carefully. Plus, the lighting has to be carefully arranged, so as not to damage the fabrics. Some pieces can’t be left out in the light and air too long.

A 1931 design from Paris for a dinner dress from the exhibit “Cosmopolitan Stylings of Mildred and Madeleine Burrage” at Maine Historical Society in Portland. Photo courtesy of Maine Historical Society/Maine Memory Network No.54252

A lot of the clothes come from family collections, donated to the historical society, while many came to the historical society from the collection of the former Westbrook College in Portland (now part of the University of New England), which had a fashion curriculum. Some pieces that represent the latest fashions of the day come from families who lived in small, rural or remote places, like the tiny town of Alexander, on Route 9 near Calais, or the Oxford County town of Waterford. In the second part of “Northern Threads,” there will be a wedding dress festooned with ostrich feathers used for a wedding on remote Matinicus Island in the 1890s.

This first part of “Northern Threads” includes Civil War-era dresses and military uniforms, bustle dresses, dresses made with reused fabric at a time when material wasn’t easy to come by, mourning fashions and dresses with the “gigot” or puffed sleeves popular in the 183os.

One of the gigot-sleeve dresses illustrates Rice’s point about remote Maine places having a pipeline to foreign fashion. It’s a two-piece silk and satin weave ensemble, circa 1830, and belonged to the Leavitt family of Eastport. It comes with a small cape, called a pereline, that fits over the dress. The deep purple silk was expensive in its day and probably dyed with imported logwood, before the advent of chemical dye.


In the 1830s, people in Eastport would have been influenced in their fashions and tastes by the steady stream of British ships bringing European goods to the remote Maine seaport, Rice said. The number of British ships coming to Eastport increased 800 percent in the early 1830s.

Examples of the gigot sleeve in dresses from the 1820s-1830s, on display at Maine Historical Society. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Another theme that can be found in the historical society’s clothing collection is the creativity of Mainers, who sometimes would buy the latest fashions but adapt them with their own hands and ideas, Rice said. The dress belonging to Hannah Adams in Belfast, for instance, has a label from a Boston clothier, W.H. Bigalow, 150 Warren Ave., Boston. But later, the dress was hand embroidered with colorful floral designs – hinting at daisies, berries, cat tails and poppies. Also added was a chenille fringe.

There’s an area of the “Northern Threads” exhibit dedicated to adaptive reuse. One very clever example is a green, white and rose-colored silk brocade dress worn by a member of the Jewett family to a Portland ball in 1825 honoring the Marquis de Lafayette, a Revolutionary War hero. The fabric of the dress dates from the late 1730s or early 1740s, and the dress was initially made in the 1770s. Then it was altered and re-styled for the 1825 ball, but in a Colonial Revival style.

Some other examples of Mainers’ own creative adaptations of fashions will be seen in the second part of “Northern Threads” when it opens in August. One of those is a women’s aviator’s jacket – think Amelia Earhart – which were popular in the 1930s. It was made by a Maine woman who worked at a shoe factory and had access to leather.

Supplementing the eye-catching fashions are some surprising personal stories. Among the various military uniforms on display is the dress uniform coat of Oliver Otis Howard of Leeds, when he was a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in the 1850s. During the Civil War, Howard lost his right arm at the Battle of Seven Pines in Virginia. After the war, he was commissioner of the U.S. Freedmen’s Bureau and founder of Howard University in Washington, D.C., today one of the best-known historically Black colleges in the country.

The other two fashion exhibits now at the historical society also spring from personal stories. Sisters Mildred Giddings Burrage (1890-1983) and Madeleine Burrage (1891-1976) came from a Maine family that made its fortune in lumber around the Bangor area and eventually settled in Wiscasset. Mildred studied and worked as an artist in France, where she became interested in haute couture. Madeleine became a jewelry designer, and both traveled extensively in Europe and South America, often writing home about the fashions they saw.


Among Mildred’s collected papers and writings are original drawings and descriptions of dress designs from fashion houses in Paris in the 1920s and ’30s. The drawings were sent to potential customers in the days before catalogs and websites, said Tilly Laskey, curator at the Maine Historical Society and of the Burrage show.

Thirty of these “line sheets” featuring dress designs are on display as part of the show. Addresses and other information show they were not sent directly to Mildred, and it’s not clear how she acquired them over the years, Laskey said. Many of these drawings are in color and come with images of fabrics and color samples.

Laskey also curated “Representing Every Particular: John Martin’s 19th Century Fashion Illustrations.” Martin’s drawings are particularly interesting because he was neither an artist nor a student of fashion. He was an accountant and shop keeper from Bangor who was a keen observer. His own father had died when he was young, and he knew little about him. So he had a strong desire to help his children learn about his times and experiences. He left behind a 650-page journal and several scrapbooks of notes and sketches, done from the 1860s into the 1890s. He drew what he saw and added his own commentary.

Annie Martin drawn by her father, John Martin, in 1866 from “Representing Every Particular: John Martin’s 19th Century Fashion Illustrations” at Maine Historical Society. Photo courtesy of Maine Historical Society/Maine State Museum/Maine Memory Network No. 101171

One of his later drawings, “A Society Lady of 1889,” shows a woman wearing a bustled dress, colored brightly with orange, red, violet and green, and holding a parasol and a small handbag. In his description of the drawing, Martin calls the subject “a Society lady of the present day” and notes that while the material for the dress is not expensive, it “shows that the wearer is a person of fine taste.” Ten of his doodles and illustrations are on display.

“He can get a little snarky about what people were wearing and his descriptions are pretty amusing,” said Laskey. “He was drawing these freehand and offering a lot of information about what he saw.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: