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Fashioning the New England Family

Fashioning the New England Family book cover

Written by Kimberly S. Alexander. Foreword by Anne E. Bentley

As America’s first historical society, the Massachusetts Historical Society has collected family materials since 1791, including long-cherished pieces of clothing that arrived alongside papers such as letters and diaries. Due to the different storage requirements needed 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, reunites 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 the topics at greater length. The chapters cover a swath of more than 300 years, tracing the history of New England clothing from the colonial 17th century, through the Revolutionary 18th century, and into the national 19th. 

In these pages, readers will find a fragment of Mayflower passenger Priscilla Mullins Alden’s dress; Gov. 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 to her 1747 wedding in Boston.

Across these and many more examples, the text traces patterns of global production and local consumption and reuse, all 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 recreate how a specific garment embodied one individual’s sense of identity.

Dr. Kimberly S. Alexander is the guest curator of the exhibition and primary author of Fashioning the New England Family. She teaches museum studies and material culture at the University of New Hampshire, and has held curatorial positions at several New England museums, including the MIT Museum, the Peabody Essex Museum and Strawbery Banke. Her most recent book, Treasures Afoot: Shoe Stories from the Georgian Era (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018), traces the history of early Anglo-American footwear from the 1740s through the 1790s.

168 pages,  133 color illustrations
Distributed by the University of Virginia Press

$35 Paperback (2021)   ISBN: 978-1-936520-13-8