Thursday, February 22, 2024

18th-Century Historic Dress Collection Coming to Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg

Shoes England or America, ca. 1800 Leather, silk and linen. On loan from Mary D. Doering. (Colonial Williamsburg)

WILLIAMSBURG — More than 150 objects from one of the greatest private collections of early textiles, accessories and historic dress assembled in the United States will go on view over the next several years at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, one of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg.

‘Elegance, Taste, and Style: The Mary D. Doering Fashion Collection’ will take visitors through 50 years of the collector’s passion and feature gowns, jackets, waistcoats, shoes, textile documents and more dating between 1700-1840, according to The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (CWF).

Due to light sensitivity, the objects will be shown in three parts. The first installment, which will open on Feb. 22,  will display approximately 40 objects and is the inaugural exhibition to be shown in the Mary Turner Gilliland and Clinton R. Gilliland Gallery, the Art Museums’ first dedicated gallery to historic costume, the foundation said.

The dates for the second and third rotations of objects on view are to be determined.

“Examples of historic dress are among the most human of artifacts from the past, providing windows into the lives and tastes of our forebearers,” said Ronald L. Hurst, the foundation’s Carlisle H. Humelsine chief curator and senior vice president. “Mary Doering’s superb collection is particularly rich in such opportunities, and it is highly fitting that the Doering Collection constitutes the first exhibition in the new Gilliland Gallery for historic dress.”

When Doering, a lifelong curator, educator and researcher, was 16 years old, she received a trunk filled with early 20th-century clothing as a bequest from her great aunt. This small gift was the impetus for what became a lifelong passion for historic dress, according to the foundation.

Gown Probably England, ca. 1780 Silk and linen (Reproduction petticoat) On loan from Mary D. Doering. (Colonial Williamsburg)

Throughout her career, Doering used her collection, which ultimately grew to thousands of pieces, to educate hundreds of students and researchers about changing fashions, taste, design and style. There are approximately 800 pieces dating before 1840 alone, according to CWF.

Over the nearly 50 years that she built the collection, Doering gained expertise to create a truly comprehensive assemblage ranging from underwear to the finishing accessories.

“It has been an absolute pleasure working with Mary’s collection, especially using objects so near and dear to her heart, to tell her lifelong story of collecting historic dress,” said Neal Hurst, Colonial Williamsburg’s curator of historic dress and textiles. “Every object that Mary acquired was carefully hand-selected based on her research and what she saw in other museums. Visitors to the new historic dress gallery will love seeing the range of clothing from the fine and fancy to the plain and every day.”

Although the Doering Collection is strong in American and English objects and focused heavily on women’s dress from the 18th and early 19th centuries, it also includes important pieces from Europe.

Doering also collected many textile documents to use in her class on design, manufacturing techniques and the change in taste over time, which she taught at The Smithsonian Institution’s Master’s Program in the History of Decorative Arts in 2001, according to the foundation.

Coat England or France, ca. 1790 Silk, linen, wood and iron Waistcoat France, ca. 1790 Silk, linen and wood On loan from Mary D. Doering. (Colonial Williamsburg)

In celebration of ‘Elegance, Taste & Style’, a symposium on historic dress, “Collections, Collectors and Collaborations,” will be held at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation from Nov. 14-16.

CWF said the symposium will not only celebrate the opening of the Mary Turner Gilliland and Clinton R. Gilliland Gallery at the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg, but also 90 years of historical dress and costumed interpretation at Colonial Williamsburg (since 1934), 70 years of the Margaret Hunter Shop, which was the first curated exhibition of clothing and accessories at Colonial Williamsburg (in 1954), and 40 years of mantua making in the Colonial Williamsburg’s department of historic trades (begun in 1984).

Registration for the conference will launch in the spring.

Additional information about the Art Museums and Colonial Williamsburg as well as tickets are available online at, by calling 855-296-6627 and by following Colonial Williamsburg on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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