Wilton Historical Society fashion exhibition — More than buttons and bows

—Bryan Haeffele photos

To some, fashion may be frivolous, but the clothes people wore tell as much about their culture and society as other historical artifacts. Wilton was no different, and the Wilton Historical Society is mounting a small but telling exhibition called A Century of Style: 1860 – 1960. Encapsulating the Industrial Revolution, Roaring 20s, post-World War II, the Kennedy era and the beginnings of the women’s movement, it will open Saturday, Aug. 25, 10-4, at the society’s museum complex at 224 Danbury Road.

In a nod to New York Fashion Week, which begins Sept. 6, this show focuses on a decade-by-decade look at women’s special occasion clothing. There is also a display of evening purses and women’s dress shoes.

The accessories are what visitors will see first, and it is interesting to note, co-director Allison Sanders said, that the first three pairs of shoes were made for either foot. The display includes a pair of white wedding shoes from around 1860 and a pair of timeless black pumps from the 50s or 60s.

Beading, embroidery, and metallic mesh are recurrent themes and materials for the evening bags throughout the century.

First up in the dresses is a hand-sewn two-piece evening gown of silk and cotton from 1850 to 1860. Along with the white cotton tea gown next to it from 1870 to 1880 and the beaded evening dress that rounds out the century, these gowns were made in two pieces, perhaps as much to offer a choice of wearing different tops with the skirts or for ease of alterations or dressing, given women’s often complicated undergarments.

The mid-18th-Century evening dress has Victorian styling with a large bell-shaped skirt that gives way to a slimmer profile of the tea gown, made of lightweight cotton lace with short sleeves for summer. The later dress is machine sewn, the sewing machine having been invented in 1846.

The beaded dress is from the estate of Elizabeth Ambler. Made of dark green silk with an overlay of black lace and mutton sleeves, this elaborate dress was worn to a New York wedding, perhaps by Ambler’s grandmother.

Another New York wedding is responsible for a 1902 bridesmaid’s dress of chiffon and satin. Custom-made, it features a fitted waist, handkerchief skirt and train. The exhibition notes indicate corsets changed along with fashion, and while hoop skirts may have gone, the hourglass shape still reigned.

As the stock market rose in the 1920s, so did hemlines, and Wilton women were in vogue as a chiffon and rhinestone flapper dress attests. Sleeveless, with a dropped waist and knee-length hemline, the rhinestone pattern draws on the Art Deco designs of the day.

A sumptuous chiffon and velvet dress with silk embroidery dates from 1941, just before war rationing set in. A pair of custom shoes were fashioned to go with it.

The final two dresses will be more familiar to anyone who has watched movies from the 1950s and 60s. After the dreary war years, Christian Dior burst on the fashion scene with his “New Look” in 1947 with feminine confections that emphasized the waistline and full skirts supported by crinolines. The style was embraced by women around the world and is reflected in a pink silk chiffon with a floral motif that dates from the 1950s.

The final dress is a “little black dress” donated by Marie Donahue of Wilton. Audrey Hepburn reigned on the screen, Jackie Kennedy was first lady and the dress is representative of a sophisticated 1960s look with clean lines and simple decoration. Pantyhose was on the way in and girdles on the way out, giving women more freedom of movement.

Donahue recalled the fashions of that time, telling The Bulletin “in the 1960s there were straight skirts, no gathers or full skirts.”

“The black one is something I wore to special occasions,” she said. “All our friends, if we got together and went out to dinner we put on our pantyhose or stockings and got dressed to the nines with high heels. We didn’t go out casually like we do now. In those days it was a big deal. As long as you were getting a babysitter, you might as well get dressed up.”

Finding a fancy dress was another matter. “There was a dress store in the Piersall Building where they sold skirts and dresses and blouses and jewelry — no pants,” she recalled. Other options involved trips to New Canaan, Westport, Best & Co. in Stamford, or New York City.

A saver, Donahue said she seeks “to find a home for everything” and she has given a number of items to the historical society including her late husband Tom’s tuxedo from the 1940s. It found its way into a previous exhibition on mid-century clothing and was paired with the late Bill Martin’s dress shirt, and the shoes and bow tie of other residents.

Donahue’s family was friends with the Amblers back in the day. And while her grandmother may have worn the beaded gown from the late 1800s, Betty Ambler, Donahue said, was “no fashion plate.”

The exhibition, which was developed by the Wilton Historical Society, Pamela Hovland, and Megan Smith-Harris, will run through Oct. 6. A program on the clothing is being planned for a future date.

Information: wiltonhistorical.org.