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Fashioning the New England Family

Kimberly S. Alexander


BUY Paper · 128 pp. · 8 × 10 · ISBN 9781936520138 · $35.00 · May 2019

As America’s first historical society, the Massachusetts Historical Society has collected family materials since 1791, including long-cherished pieces of clothing that were acquired alongside papers such as letters and diaries. Because of the different storage requirements for textiles and manuscripts, these survivors-many of them hundreds of years old-have largely been divorced from their familial ties. Fashioning the New England Family, an initiative encompassing a fall 2018 exhibition and this companion volume, reconnects the textiles with the associated stories carried in the family papers.

Generously illustrated with full-color photographs of garments, fabrics, and accessories, including exquisite detail shots, the book creates a lasting overview of the exhibition but also delves into specific topics. The chapters cover a spam of more than three hundred years, tracing the history of New England clothing from the colonial seventeenth century, through the Revolutionary eighteenth century, and into the national nineteenth.

In these pages, readers will find a fragment of Mayflower passenger Priscilla Mullins Alden’s dress; Governor John Leverett’s bloodstained buff coat, which saw battle in the English Civil War; and the luxurious Spitalfields green silk damask wedding dress and shoes that Rebecca Tailer Byles wore at her 1747 wedding in Boston.

Across these examples and more, the text traces patterns of global production and local consumption and reuse, demonstrating how New Englanders used costume to establish their situation, especially in terms of class and gender, and also to express their political affiliations. Patriots and loyalists-Hancocks, Adamses, Dawses, and Olivers-make many appearances, as they are so well represented in the society's rich holdings. Manuscripts drawn from the collections-receipts, daybooks, account books, diaries-further amplify the historical insights, even at times making it possible to interpret the way in which a specific garment may have embodied one individual's sense of identity.

Distributed for the Massachusetts Historical Society

About the Author: 

Kimberly S. Alexander, guest curator of the Fashioning the New England Family exhibition, teaches museum studies and material culture at the University of New Hampshire and has held curatorial positions at the MIT Museum, the Peabody Essex Museum, and Strawbery Banke. She is the author of Treasures Afoot: Shoe Stories from the Georgian Era. Anne E. Bentley is Curator of Art at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

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