Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Receives Gift of Historic Dress Collection

Order of Saint Stanislaus Ribbon, Warsaw, Poland, 1790, silk, copper, enamel, glass, Gift of The Valentine Museum, Richmond, 2023-23.

WILLIAMSBURG — The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has recently received a gift of nearly 330 objects from The Valentine Museum in Richmond. 

The collection includes gowns, coats, trousers, breeches, waistcoats, vests, petticoats, underwear, accessories, hats, children’s clothing, and more, all of which predate 1840.

Within the larger group is a 20-piece collection of garments that were owned by and descended through the stepfamily of diplomat Lewis Littlepage (1762-1802). According to The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, it is the largest grouping of clothing owned by a single person to come into its collection.

“Historic dress allows us to look closely at the physical natures of people from the past, but we often know little about their lives,” said Ronald L. Hurst, the foundation’s senior vice president for education and historic resources. “The Littlepage collection provides a glimpse into the remarkable experiences of a Virginian whose path placed him in direct contact with world leaders at the end of the 18th century.”

Littlepage attended what was then known as the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg and later served with John Jay at the Court of Spain during the American Revolution. Due to problems with debt, he served with the Spanish Army during the attack on Minorca and the Siege of Gibraltar. By 1786 he was admitted to the Court of Poland, where he served as a Chamberlain to King Stanislaw II until 1795. With war raging across Europe and the second partition of Poland, Littlepage was forced to leave the Court and returned home in 1801.

Shortly after returning from Europe, Littlepage passed away as a bachelor in his home in Fredricksburg. An inventory taken of his estate was fairly sparse in the way of the customary furniture, ceramics, and other saleable goods. It did contain, however, a two-page, detailed list of his “clothes [sic] and decorations” worth $340.00.

Aside from the typical items, the inventory contained objects including a green cloak given to him by the king of Poland, two coats given to him by the king of Spain, a pair of Cossack pistols, a pair of German pistols and a Spanish sword.

The small estate was left to his stepbrother Waller Holladay; the surviving objects passed directly through the Holladay family until gifted to The Valentine in 1952 by Mr. and Mrs. A. Randolph Holladay II. 

According to the foundation, among the highlights of the Littlepage Collection to come to Colonial Williamsburg is a three-piece suit that it is believed he wore while at the Court of Catherine II of Russia. The suit, originally constructed in 1787 and comprised of a fully embroidered court coat, a single-breasted waistcoat and matching breeches, saw continual wear as Littlepage did not become a member of the Order of Saint Stanislaus until 1790, when the badge was probably added to the breast of the coat. 

“The Littlepage collection offers a unique opportunity to study an individual’s style and how world politics affected their fashion,” said Neal Hurst, Colonial Williamsburg’s curator of historic dress and textiles. “It is such an amazing collection of clothing that tells an unbelievable story.”

For a further look at the Littlepage Collection, visit the Arts Museum of Colonial Williamsburg page, where all of the objects can be seen in full-color images along with interpreted text for each item. Additional information about the Art Museums and Colonial Williamsburg ,as well as tickets, are available online at colonialwilliamsburg.org

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