Over the last two years, Cayuga Museum staff and volunteers completed a comprehensive inventory of the museum’s large clothing collection, which was the inspiration for the “Fabrication: Telling Stories through Clothing” exhibit. The collection contains everything from 18th century undergarments to 1950s wedding dresses.
Why do museums preserve clothing collections? Clothing is universal, serving as a functional tool and a method of artistic expression. Everyone can relate to it and it can be appreciated without a description, which makes clothing an ideal historical object, accessible to all. Common items in a museum clothing collection include celebratory pieces like formalwear, commemorative pieces like military uniforms, and items considered unusual today, like hoop skirts and bustles. Displaying clothing in a museum allows the viewer to look at how it’s made and appreciate the construction, but it is important to consider who is making the clothing, both historically and today.
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Many of the pieces in the museum’s collection have documentation about the owner, but not the maker. Before the rise of ready-to-wear, mass-produced clothing, clothing production was relegated to women, who would make their own clothes and those of their families. Considered part of the duties of the “women’s sphere,” the time spent sewing clothing or weaving the cloth was substantial. Women were expected to manage the private, domestic sphere of the home while men dominated the public sphere. In addition to producing clothing, women created other textiles for the home such as quilts and coverlets. Wealthier women were able to pay a tailor or domestic worker to fashion their clothing, freeing their time for entertaining and traveling. Shops sold fabric and trimmings, allowing women to design their own clothes and hats based on the popular fashions of the time.