Fashion Through the Ages

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Historic Fashion from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Fashion Through the Ages
At the time of the Museum's founding in 1870, Boston and the surrounding area were at the center of the American textile industry. In 1877, the first costume entered the museum - an 18th century brocade court dress. The Textile and Fashion Arts Collection now holds approximately 40,000 objects and is global in scope, ranging from Egyptian pleated dresses from 2323-2150 BC to contemporary haute couture. Two major collections form the backbone of the costume holdings: the Mrs. Philip (Carrie) Lehman Collection of textiles and costume accessories, donated in 1938; and the extensive collection of costumes, accessories, needlework, costume books and prints from Elizabeth Day McCormick acquired between 1943 and 1953. The MFA also holds an extensive and important collection of fans, assembled by Esther Oldham, and the largest collection of sable beadwork in the world. The objects here are Western fashion and accessories from the 16th through the 20th centuries, some of which were exhibited in She Walks in Splendor (1963), The Well Dressed 18th Century Man (1979) and High Style and Hoop Skirts (2005).

Pair of women's platform shoes (chopines)
1590-1610

The dramatic elevated shoes known as chopines probably originated in the Near East and wore worn in various parts of Europe including Spain and Venice, from where this pair derive. Made of either cork or wood to achieve their great heights, the shoes allowed women to wear ever longer dresses - a visible symbol of both status and material wealth.

Elizabethan woman's jacket
1610-1615

One of the treasures of the MFA's Textile and Fashion Arts collection, this spectacular Elizabethan woman's jacket is a tour-de-force of English embroidery. Meandering floral vines with coiling tendrils were popular in English design and often used on men's formal caps and women's coifs, or headdresses. This form of jacket, with its overall gold and silver embroidery of daffodils, was fashionable from about 1610-1615. The jacket was probably restyled around 1630 and, in 1963, an attempt was made to restore it to its original form.

Pair of gloves
1601 - 1625

An Italian visitor to London in 1618 observed: “The fashion of gloves is so universal that even the porters wear them very ostentatiously.” Indeed, throughout Europe, delicate lace or splendidly decorated leather gloves (sometimes perfumed at extra expense) were a mark of wealth and style and frequently presented as prestigious gifts. Most gloves were made in one size, and the extremely long fingers reflect fashion more than the actual size of the wearer’s hands. Although these gloves show signs of occasional use, the fact that they have survived is evidence of the esteem in which they were held.

Embroidered infant's bonnet
1650 - 1725

This late 17th-early 18th century infant's bonnet is embroidered with polychrome silk and silver yarn and trimmed with silver lace. The complex design features baskets with pears, cartouches framing fruit, the biblical scene of Tobias and an angel, and a vibrantly colored bird.

Pair of women's beaded mules
1794

The MFA has the largest collection of sablé glass bead embroidery in the world, and it adorns shoes, bags, and other fashionable accessories. This pair of women's mules captures the 18th century fascination with the first hot air balloon ascent when ballooning pioneers such as the Frenchmen Etienne Montgolfier and Jean Pierre Blanchard perfected the hydrogen, or hot-air, balloon which successfully set sail from Versailles for the first time in 1773. This particular image is based on a print depicting the battle of Fleurus of 26 June 1794.

Man's negligee cap
1750 - 1800

This is an example of the type of informal, or negligee, cap worn at home by a man at his leisure. This French example is made of white linen and embroidered with polychrome silk and silver threads.

Child's shoes
1701 - 1799

These late 18th century American children's shoes are embroidered with silk threads on satin. Floral motives were very fashionable during the period and could also be found embroidered on women's aprons, stomachers, petticoats and even dresses.

Woman's stays
1780 - 1789

This set of American 1780s women's stays reveal the complexity behind the craft of corset making. Wool twill weave and linen plain weave are stitched together to form channels that encase ribs made of whale baleen. The ribs create the cone shape which gives eighteenth century garments their classic shape.

Bag
1775 - 1799

Bags or reticules became popular during the late 18th century as the skirts of fashionable dresses fit closer to the body. Prior to this, interior free-hanging pockets were tied around the waist. This bag, knit with 3-dimensional roses, would have been fashionable around 1790.

Folding fan depicting scenes from the history of ballooning
1785

Fans have been important fashionable accessories since at least the first millennium B.C.E. when they were recorded as having been used in China. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston has an extraordinary collection of fans that span diverse cultures and time. Fans became widely fashionable in Europe in the fifteenth century and continued to be used well into the twentieth century. This remarkable fan depicts the history of ballooning and includes painted portraits of ballooning pioneers such as the Frenchmen Etienne Montgolfier and Jean Pierre Blanchard. Montgolfier and his brother perfected the hydrogen, or hot-air, balloon and successfully set sail from Versailles for the first time in 1773. Blanchard, along with the American physician John Jeffries, made the first channel crossing in a balloon in 1785.

Robe à la polonaise
1785

As the demand for Indian printed cotton textiles increased to an obsession in the seventeenth century, and as prices spiked, European textile printers sought to gain a share of the lucrative market by printing cottons that duplicated not only the exotic floral patterns of Indian imports but also the mordant technology behind them. The close connection between European and Indian printed cottons can be seen in this dress dated to 1785. Printed in France, the polonaise robe with matching quilted petticoat reveals a faithful imitation of the curling, exotic floral designs of earlier Indian printed cotton. The French version also demonstrates the successful mastery of the Indian mordant method; it was block-printed with alum and iron mordents prior to dyeing with traditional European dyestuffs such as madder (for red) and weld (for yellow).

Painted silk bag
1800

Stencil-printed and hand-painted shell and flower pictures were popular with girls at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The skill rested in the composition of the scene and in the shading of the forms. This circa 1800 bag or reticule's shell pattern is artfully conceived as is the wreath of pink roses which decorates the reverse.

Man's waistcoat from a three-part court suit
1805 - 1808

Hon. James Bowdoin of Boston, only surviving son of Gov. James Bowdoin, was U.S. Minister to Spain and Associate Minister to France from 1805 to 1808. His 3 years of diplomatic service were passed chiefly in Paris, as the state of war prevailing in Europe prevented him from reaching Madrid. When he died in 1811, his grandnephew, James Bowdoin Winthrop came into possession of certain of his personal effects. These included a number of articles of wearing apparel, in particular, a court suit, which by family tradition was worn by Mr. Bowdoin at a ball given by Napoleon I.

Woman's dress
1815 - 1820

This striking example of an early 19th century French Empire dress includes a construction detail - silk satin bands with piping across front and back of bodice - termed "á la Hussar" - that references military attire. Worn by an American in Boston, the dress is fashionably accessorized with the ever-popular paisley shawl.

A green silk calash
1801 - 1899

The shape of calash bonnets drew inspiration from the horse-drawn carriages with collapsible tops. Imbued with a similar practicality, this green silk American calash has a double reed frame and can be folded flat for storage.

Woman's bonnet
1815

This French straw bonnet dates to 1815 and is trimmed with cream silk taffeta ribbon and plaited straw.

Court dress
1830

Tremendous social, political, and economic changes occurred during the first half of the nineteenth century. Increased mechanization (the result of the Industrial Revolution), greater prosperity, a growing middle class, and shifting cultural values all added to the constantly evolving fashions of the period. Women's garments revealed the greatest transformation, moving from a relaxed, natural shape inspired by classical ideals to an increasingly structured and tailored silhouette. A gown made between 1825 and 1830 reveals the fanciful extravagance of formal dress during this period. The cream silk-satin gown features a low, round neckline, enormous puffed sleeves, and a full skirt gathered into the waistline. Gilt metal embroidery, worked into textured and flat gold wire, embellishes it in an allover pattern of floral springs, with a deep border pattern of wheat sheaves and three-dimensional floral branches.

Pair of women's gloves
1800 - 1825

In the first decades of the 1800s, these printed kid gloves were exported to various parts of Europe from Spain. This particular example features watered ovals that reflect the popular "watered" or moire silks of the period. The imagery depicts Paris and Aphrodite from classical myth. Paris, a mortal, was chosen to judge who of the three goddesses was the most beautiful: Hera, Athena or Aphrodite. Aphrodite won by promising Paris a golden apple to give to Helen of Troy.

Pair of women's gloves
1830

These early 19th century Spanish gloves with pinked and scalloped edges show a woman in a vibrant pink dress. The Cupid has shot an arrow through the heart of the woman, who is being courted by a gentleman. Gloves were one of the few acceptable gifts a man could give to an unmarried woman. The Cupid, the presence of pink, and the floral motifs suggest that these were given as a token of love. These gloves were featured in the exhibition Think Pink (October 2, 2013 - May 26, 2014).

Woman's shoes
1840 - 1849

This pair of 1840s women's slippers are made of black velvet embroidered with pink and red ribbon work and are lined with fur that replicates ermine.

Pair of women's gloves
1825 - 1850

It is speculated that this pair of 19th century women's gloves were possibly made for the French Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, because of the embroidered "N" surmounted by an imperial crown on each gauntlet.

Man's hat
1840 - 1860

This mid-19th century man's black silk plush top hat was made in Nancy, France.

Woman's headdress
1840 - 1860

Fanciful mid-19th century headdresses (often with matching corsages) were made of feathers, artificial flowers, ribbons, and tinsel and were a standard part of a woman's evening coiffure. Fashioned into wreaths or headbands, headdresses were intended to trail over smooth, swept-back hairstyles and down the nape of the neck. The MFA is fortunate to have a large collection of these precious and ephemeral accessories.

Woman's headdress
1840 - 1860

Headdresses with artificial fruit and flowers were popular among the socialites of 1850s Paris. This lusciously naturalistic example, decorated with artificial cherries, strawberries, grapes, plums, flower blossoms, and coral, was worn by women of the Lamb family of Boston. Scion Annie Lawrence Roche most likely commissioned it when she lived in France from 1850 to 1853.

Pair of woman's slippers
1852

Shoes ornamented with brightly colored silk dyed with the newly invented synthetic dyes were popular in the 1850s. This example is almost identical to one manufactured by J. Sparks Hill and displayed at the Great Exhibition.

Pair of woman's boots
1850

Green satin boots such as these 1850s examples were rarely seen under the voluminous skirts of women's dresses, but the adoption of the crinoline later in the century, with its inherent tendency to sway, allowed unprecedented glimpses of the feet and ankles. As a result, boots became a more popular alternative to shoes.

Man's smoking cap
1801 - 1899

At-home smoking caps were a common item in menswear in the 19th century. The more casual structure and more fanciful design provide a stark contrast to the stiff top hat that was emblematic of the business man.

Woman's dress in two parts
1856 - 1858

This dress features the elaborate silk fringe and deep, V-shaped bodice typical of mid-1850s dresses, but the wider skirts and higher waistline reflect later changes in fashion. After the introduction of the crinoline by the late 1850s, the taste for flounces began to decline while skirts continued to swell, reaching their apex in 1860. The width of this skirt requires a crinoline to achieve the desired fullness.

Girl's dress in three parts
1865 - 1870

A fashionable style for children's clothes during the mid-1800s, dresses featured a peplum overskirt and contrast trimming. The length of dresses was precisely graduated according to age - shortest for the youngest and increasing with maturity.

Woman's evening dress
1865

This dress was worn by Bostonian Fanny Crowninshield (Mrs. John Quincy) Adams (1839-1911) around 1865. The gown was made by Mme. Roger, a predecessor of Charles Fredrick Worth and a noted dressmaker of her time. Mme. Roger was a Paris-based fashion designer whose dresses are portrayed in famous Renoir and Tissot portraits. She produced both custom made and ready-to-wear gowns and wedding dresses. Her gowns were in the grand style, trimmed with flowers, gauze and lace.

Knitted silk stocking cap
1870

This circa 1870 man's knitted silk stocking cap originated in Italy, which has been known for excellent knitwear since the Renaissance era. Much like the popular smoking caps of the era, this was made to be worn at home for leisure activity.

Corset
1870 - 1885

Understructures, stays, and corsetry form an important part of the Textile and Fashion Arts collection. This 1870-1885 American set of stays reveals the fine quality of even ready-to-wear corsets, which were beautifully adorned with lace and embroidery.

Afternoon dress
1880

Charles Frederick Worth is generally recognized as the father of modern haute couture - high-end, custom dressmaking. Worth not only created some of the most elegant and coveted garments of the late nineteenth century; he also revolutionized dressmaking and established a modern approach to the business of fashion. A two-piece afternoon dress made about 1880 reveals the elegance of Worth's designs and his enduring interest in historical styles. It features a stylish, tight-fitting bodice and bustle skirt with train. Several details, however, evoke styles of a century before, including the low, square neckline, stomacher-like center bow, and three-quarter length ruffled sleeves, as well as the split skirt construction, which suggests a petticoat underneath. Even the fabric - cut velvet with a small-scale feather-and-bow pattern - is reminiscent of the delicate, pastel fashions of the Rococo taste.

Pair of women's shoes
1895

These circa 1895 neon green satin shoes originally came from France and were made by a shoemaker on the Place Vendome - L. Perchellet. It is evident from the vibrancy of the hue that aniline, or artificial, dyes were used to color the silk. Aniline dyes, introduced in the 1870s, opened up a world of color that was completely new and dramatically different from that achieved with natural dyes.

More to discover

See more from the MFA's collection by viewing our exhibitions in 20th Century Fashion, 21st Century Fashion, Fashion Photography, and Fashion Accessories.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Credits: Story

Cover image:
Woman's dress in two parts, about 1856–58. Silk plain weave ( taffeta), trimmed with silk fringe tassels, machine embroidered net, and bobbin lace. 50.474a-b. Gift of Mrs. Harriet Ropes Cabot and Edward Jackson Lowell Ropes. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

In order:
Folding fan depicting scenes from the history of ballooning, about 1785. Reformed protein [molded horn] sticks and skin leaf painted with gouache. 43.2078. The Elizabeth Day McCormick Collection. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Pair of women's platform shoes (chopines), 1590–1610. Tooled leather over wood, with metallic braid. 44.556a-b. The Elizabeth Day McCormick Collection. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Woman's jacket, about 1610–15, with later alterations. Linen plain weave, embroidered with silk and metallic threads and spangles; metallic bobbin lace. 43.243. The Elizabeth Day McCormick Collection. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Pair of gloves, Early 17th century. Leather embroidered with silk, metallic threads, and spangles; metallic bobbin lace. 38.1356a-b. Gift of Philip Lehman in memory of his wife Carrie L. Lehman. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Infant's bonnet, 1650–1725. Silk and silver yarns embroidered on silk; silver lace trim. 38.1323. Gift of Philip Lehman in memory of his wife Carrie L. Lehman. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Pair of women's beaded mules, about 1794. Glass beads (sablé), leather sole and heel, silk lining, and gilt metal trim. 43.2259a-b. The Elizabeth Day McCormick Collection. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Man's negligee cap, 1750–1800. White linen embroidered with polychrome silk and silver. 38.1297. Gift of Philip Lehman in memory of his wife Carrie L. Lehman. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Child's shoes, 18th century. Silk satin embroidered with silk yarns, silk plain weave binding tape, cotton and leather lining, and leather heel and sole. 37.368. Gift of Mrs. Henry K. Metcalf. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Woman's stays, 1780s. Wool twill, linen plain weave lining, kid binding, plain weave silk ribbon, braided linen laces with metals tips, baleen boning. 99.664.11. Gift of Miss Ellen A. Stone. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Bag, late 18th century. Silk; Knitting. 43.1092. The Elizabeth Day McCormick Collection. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Folding fan depicting scenes from the history of ballooning, about 1785. Reformed protein [molded horn] sticks and skin leaf painted with gouache. 43.2078. The Elizabeth Day McCormick Collection. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Robe à la polonaise, About 1785, altered at a later date. Cotton plain weave, block printed. 43.1619. The Elizabeth Day McCormick Collection. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Painted silk bag, octagonal, about 1800. Silk, pigment; painted. 44.690. Gift of Miss Marjorie Childs. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Man's waistcoat from a three part court suit, about 1805–08. Silk satin embroidered with silk and metallic threads, spangles and glass. 01.111. Gift of Robert C. Winthrop. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Woman's dress, 1815-20. Silk plain weave crepe with silk satin trim, metal hooks, silk plain weave lining (bodice). 49.874. Gift of Emily Welles Robbins (Mrs. Harry Pelham Robbins) and the Hon. Sumner Welles, in memory of Georgiana Welles Sargent. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

A green silk calash, 19th century. Silk, cane, and silk ribbon. 50.2371. Gift of Mrs. Samuel Mixter, Mrs. Samuel J. Mixter, and Mrs. Henry A. Morss, Jr. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Woman's bonnet, about 1815. Woven straw and silk plain weave (taffeta). 44.189. The Elizabeth Day McCormick Collection. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Court dress, about 1830. Silk satin, embroidered with metallic threads. 43.1650. The Elizabeth Day McCormick Collection. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Pair of women's gloves, 1800–25. Kid, printed. 43.1978a-b. The Elizabeth Day McCormick Collection. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Pair of women's gloves, about 1830. Printed and painted kid, silk ribbon; intaglio. 43.1987a-b. The Elizabeth Day McCormick Collection. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Woman's shoes, 1840s. Silk velvet with silk thread and ribbon embroidery, ermine fur, and leather. 97.155. Gift of Mrs. Asa Gray. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Pair of women's gloves, second quarter of 19th century. Kid leather embroidered with silk and gold metallic yarns. 38.1240a-b. Gift of Philip Lehman in memory of his wife Carrie L. Lehman. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Man's hat, mid 19th century. Silk; velvet. 44.201. The Elizabeth Day McCormick Collection. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Woman's headdress, mid 19th century. Silk velvet ribbon, silver coated paper, and tinsel. 52.1263. Gift in memory of Mrs. Horatio Appleton Lamb. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Woman's headdress, mid 19th century. Wire, silk, gum Arabic, starch, beeswax, pigments, glass, and gelatin. 51.360. Gift in memory of Mrs. Horatio Appleton Lamb. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Pair of woman's slippers, about 1850. Leather, silk plain weave (taffeta) and lace, machine embroidery, silk satin, cotton plain weave, metal buckle (probably gold plated brass). 49.1020a-b. Gift of Emily Welles Robbins (Mrs. Harry Pelham Robbins) and the Hon. Sumner Welles, in memory of Georgiana Welles Sargent. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Pair of woman's boots, about 1850. Silk satin with cotton lining and leather soles. 46.680a-b. Gift of Miss Helen T. Chickering. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Man's smoking cap, 19th century. Fulled wool embroidered with wool, silk tassel, plain weave silk lining. 45.538. Gift of Miss Laura R. Little. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Woman's dress in two parts, about 1856–58. Silk plain weave ( taffeta), trimmed with silk fringe tassels, machine embroidered net, and bobbin lace. 50.474a-b. Gift of Mrs. Harriet Ropes Cabot and Edward Jackson Lowell Ropes. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Girl's dress in three parts, 1865-70. Silk plain weave (taffeta), cotton twill. 50.2368a. Gift of Mrs. Samuel Mixter, Mrs. Samuel J. Mixter, and Mrs. Henry A. Morss, Jr. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Mme. Roger, Woman's evening dress, about 1865. Silk brocaded taffeta, tulle, satin and blond lace. 46.207a. Gift of Mrs. Robert Homans. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Knitted silk stocking cap, about 1870. Silk; Knitted. 48.1307. Gift of Mrs. Malleville McClellan Howard. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Corset, 1870-1885. Silk/cotton satin; cotton sateen lining; silk embroidery; silk ribbon binding. 2013.616. Gift of Mary Finnegan. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Charles Frederick Worth, Afternoon dress, about 1880. Silk plain weave (faille), silk satin, and silk cut and uncut velvet, trimmed with silk plain weave (chiffon) and silk fringe. 50.803a-b. Gift of Mrs. Hugh D. Scott. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

L. Perchellet, Pair of women's shoes, 1895. Satin, leather, sequins and beads. 50.2682a-b. Gift of Miss Susanna R. Dabney, in memory of Miss Elizabeth M. Larkin. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

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