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Clothes Tell Stories: Reuse and Recycle

By: Anna-Maria Hand 

The internship has officially come to a close. The past couple of weeks were focused on prepping mannequins for display, giving our talks, and processing as many items as we could. For this week’s post I’ve decided to look exclusively at a few garments to understand their personal stories.

Clothing was primarily developed to provide protection for humans from the elements. However, after centuries of technological advancements in textile production and design, and innovations in clothing styles the market and industry developed creating a new kind of accessibility for consumers. Before the development of readymade clothing in the 20th century, people would use and reuse their clothing throughout the majority of their lives. Textiles were too expensive and valuable to be cast aside after a small amount of use. People used practices of mending and re-appropriating to prolong the existence of their household textiles and clothing.

During this internship we’ve seen an abundance of reuse and re-appropriating within many garments such as taking out hems, and waistlines to accommodate a growing person, lining dresses or pockets with leftover scraps of fabric, the movement of buttons on a bodice to adapt a different person entirely.

This children’s dress is lined completely with scraps of fabric.

Children’s clothes were definitely remade over and over to accommodate a growing body. A lot of the time, they were re-purposed for younger siblings as well.

This blue and black striped dress (which is going on display in the near future) is riddled with clues that it was later re-made for another person. The pleats have been taken out in the front to allow more room for the waistline. There is an entirely new piece of fabric added to the bodice with a set of clasps and snaps. Snaps weren’t invented until about the 1890s, so it could have been remade for the stage or a fancy dress party.

Lastly, this olive green dress (which is now on display!) was definitely altered multiple times and over multiple decades in the 19th century. According to Dr. Karin Bohleke, the fabric is from the 1840s, it has an 1850s waist treatment, but the sleeves and neckline are typical of the civil war era. As show in the pictures above, fabric was added to the skirt to make it longer.

All of these examples are great instances of how re-purposing and recycling were second nature to people in previous centuries. Today, most of our clothing is completely replaceable. We’ve become a culture for fast fashion and throwaway philosophy. It would be very interesting to see this kind of clothing re-purpose become popular again.