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Sunday, November 4, 2018

Outdoorwear at Fruitlands: From frilly dresses to fishing waders

“Leisure Pursuits: The Fashion and Culture of Recreation” at Fruitlands Museum in Harvard explores the American idea of outdoor recreation and its intersection with the world of fashion.

HARVARD - A seemingly incongruous bunch, mannequins dressed for a garden party in lacy French couture gowns stand next to tall black rubber waders anticipating the start of fly fishing season; nearby a “scandalous” knee-to-neck swimsuit circa 1910 is ready to hit the beach.

But like clothing in a wardrobe the apparent disparate items complete the picture for the exhibit “Leisure Pursuits: The Fashion and Culture of Recreation,” now on display at Fruitlands Museum. Together they explore the melding of fashion and outdoor recreational activities in times past.

“Outdoor recreation is in the very fabric of our culture,” said Christie Jackson, a Winchester resident and senior curator for The Trustees of Reservations, a nonprofit land preservation group. Fruitlands, site of the former Transcendental community started by Bronson Alcott, father of “Little Women” author Louisa May Alcott, is now integrated with The Trustees’ network of properties.

The exhibit evolved from a collaboration with MASS Fashion, a consortium of cultural institutions that celebrates fashion culture with exhibits and special events. In addition, the formal gallery space available at Fruitlands, which joined The Trustees in 2016, created a new opportunity for this unique exhibit.

“It really was this amazing synergy of being part of Mass Fashion, of wanting to show a different aspect of our collection that we had never done [textiles], and celebrating what the Trustees is all about,” said Jackson.

The fabric of the exhibit is woven with several different threads. One is the concept of leisure from 1840 to 1940.

“Prior to 1840, most of the [U.S.] population is living rurally,” said Fruitlands curator and Acton resident Shana Dumont Garr. Average people spent their days working in outdoor occupations like farming, but by 1900 the Industrial Revolution ignited a swift population movement from rural areas to the cities.

“So then people are starting to think of the outdoors as a separate thing,” said Dumont Garr. “The idea of people needing to leave the cities to restore themselves comes up.”

Five themes of leisure are represented in the exhibit: gardening, entertaining, swimming, exercising and riding. Some of the objects seem very familiar: a basket of functional garden tools or a pair of stylish equestrian boots. Others seem merely quaint but all were used for the enjoyment of the outdoors.

Objects were collected from some of the other Massachusetts historic properties under the stewardship of The Trustees of Reservations, including Naumkeag in Stockbridge, the Stevens-Coolidge Place in North Andover, the William Cullen Bryant Homestead in Cummington and Castle Hill on the Crane Estate in Ipswich.

Admittedly, these were the homes of prominent citizens who had leisure time and could afford large estates, horses and yachts, and so much of what is on display are the objects from prosperous households. But as more people sought out leisure, the basic concept of enjoying the outdoors and the necessary fashions evolved and took shape.

The exhibit highlights a few particular individuals, including Mabel Choate, owner of Naumkeag, and William Cullen Bryant, a writer and an early proponent for preserving open spaces. This thread creates a personal connection to the objects.

A collection of breezy, delicate gowns occupies the center of the exhibit. These were designed for and worn at a popular leisure activity: garden parties. The dresses are distinctly lighter than Victorian-era dresses which usually involved corsets, petticoats, bloomers, hoop skirts and long sleeves.

An etiquette guide book from 1921 reinforced the importance of proper dress for a garden party: “Here, amidst summer flowers, the wrong color schemes in dress, jar as badly as a streak of black paint across the hazy canvas of landscape painting by an impressionist.”

William Cullen Bryant, editor of the New York Evening Post whose family estate is now a Trustees property in Cummington, had a personal regimen for a healthy lifestyle that seems common sense today. But in 1850 his ideas were quite progressive. Many of his personal items are included in the Fruitlands exhibit.

“My favorite item in the exhibition is William Cullen Bryant's homeopathy kit,” said Dumont Garr. “I love how he traveled widely and implemented and shared new ideas about health way before his time.”

Bryant believed in fresh air, daily exercise, including using wooden hand weights, avoiding caffeine and alcohol, and drinking lots of water. When it was time to relax, he enjoyed wearing his loose-fitting Turkish caftan and pointy red slippers.

Jackson noted many of the objects on display represent evolving ideas.

“There have been a lot of strong feisty women in our history that have used fashion as a way to communicate and to push boundaries,” Jackson said. “There has always been this tension historically between modesty, properness and performance.”

For example, in the 1900s women’s swimsuits could be downright dangerous. World-record Australian swimming champion Annette Kellerman was arrested on Revere Beach in 1907 for the “indecency” of wearing a one-piece swimsuit which did not cover her knees.

Similar tensions persist today. It was not that long ago that Serena Williams was called out at the French Open for her choice of fashion during a tennis match.

“There is a lot of relevance here to performance and identity. I really wanted to make an exhibit that was a little whimsical and fun,” said Jackson. “So it was important to me to have a range of objects so everyone can relate to this. And I really want people to think about ‘how do we enjoy the outdoors?’ ”

'Leisure Pursuits'

WHEN: Through March 24, 2019

WHERE: Fruitlands Museum, 102 Prospect Hill Road, Harvard

HOURS:

Through Nov. 4: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday, Wednesday-Friday; until 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Nov. 5-March 24: noon-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday only.

ADMISSION: Through Nov. 4: $15 adults, $12 seniors (65+) and students with ID; $6 children 5-13; free for members and children under 5.

Trails/Grounds only: $6 adults, $3 children

Nov. 5-March 24: $5 adults, seniors, student and children; free for member and children under 5.

INFO: 978-456-3924; fruitlands.thetrustees.org



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