By Alison Rooney
The elegant and elaborate summer afternoon get-togethers of neighbors, friends and family that were a staple of social life in the Hudson Highlands for more than a century are back. They, and the fashions they inspired, are examined in a new exhibition at the recently renamed Putnam History Museum (formerly the Putnam County Historical Society) entitled Summer Afternoon: Fashion and Leisure in the Hudson Highlands, 1850-1950.
As America matured and its commercial capital, New York, grew in wealth and sophistication, city dwellers seeking respite from the summer heat joined local families along the Hudson River to enjoy a variety of sports and lively rounds of visits and parties. Summer afternoons — “the most beautiful words in the English language,” according to Henry James — became the setting for some of the most striking examples of women’s fashionable dress of the time. Many of these gorgeous garments survive in the collection of the Putnam History Museum, and 30 of them, along with a half-dozen accessories, will be on display.
The garments and accessories, mostly custom-made, reflect women’s roles in regulating social life and maintaining standards of proper attire for every occasion. Examples of sportswear include special outfits for swimming and riding as well as the shirtwaist blouses worn for carriage drives and to play croquet, tennis or golf. At the turn of the century, white cotton dresses trimmed with lace were most fashionable for luncheons, garden parties and teas. The lingerie worn underneath and the dressing gowns worn only in private were equally elaborate and refined.
The exhibition traces the evolution of women’s fashion over this period, which, of course, reflected evolving social mores and tastes. Even on the warmest 19th-century summer day, for example, notions of propriety required high necklines and long sleeves worn over rigid corsets and layers of undergarments. Fashion responded by providing materials that were gossamer light—cotton batiste, net, and silk chiffon. Eyelet and cutwork embroidery and crochet lace allowed air to circulate around the body. After 1910, women’s fashion was increasingly simplified, but light, delicate materials, embellished in patterns and colors inspired by the beauty of the season, remained summer constants. By the 1920s, corsets were no longer worn and women were free to bare their arms and legs to the sun. The short summer dresses of the period hung loosely from the shoulders and were as light as a breeze.
A 56-page color catalogue features photographs of many of the exhibition’s pieces and two essays, Summer Leisure across the Social Spectrum in the Hudson Highlands by Dr. Trudie Grace, curator of the Putnam History Museum; and Fashion for Summer, 1850-1950 by Dr. Lourdes Font, associate professor of art history and fashion studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology and guest curator for the exhibition. Both essays explore summer fashion and its role in society.
Garrison resident Gale Epstein, creative director of Hanky Panky, the lingerie company and a major sponsor of the exhibition, has designed an exclusive collection inspired by Summer Afternoon. Examples of these will be on display, and the items themselves available for purchase at hankypanky.
The Summer Afternoon exhibition is made possible by major funding from Hanky Panky and The Leonard and Evelyn Lauder Foundation and additional generous contributions from Leslie Jacobson, Betty Green, Lisa and Lloyd Zeiderman, and Wells Fargo.
The exhibition will run from June 30 to Dec. 15. The exhibition opens with a champagne reception for members and guests on Saturday, June 30, from 5 to 7 p.m. The reception is free to members and donors. RSVP by June 27 to [email protected] or call 845-265-4010.
The Putnam History Museum, currently transitioning from the Putnam County Historical Society, is located at 63 Chestnut Street in Cold Spring. Opening hours are Wednesday through Sunday, 11-5. Admission is $5, children, $2, seniors and members, free. More information is available at 845-265-4010 or at the PCHS website.
Photos courtesy of PCHS
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