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Communique: One Night Exhibit Of Entire Latimer House Fashion Collection

Lower Cape Fear Historical Society
1885 wedding dress in its prime

For one night only, the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society (LCFHS) displays its entire fashion and textile collection at the Latimer House in downtown Wilmington. "Ladies of Style" showcase is open Friday, June 8th, 6:00pm-8:30pm. 

Some articles haven't been displayed for years; some were recently acquired and have never been displayed. Listen to LCFHS Operations Manager Rachel Rhine talk about the exhibit above; find our extended conversation below.

Eight rooms of the Latimer House will be filled with dresses, jewelry, "unmentionables," and other textiles originating between 1850 and 1940. An "Edwardian Dressing" will be acted out twice- at 6:45pm & 7:45pm- showing a woman preparing for an outing circa 1900. 

Tickets ($20) are available by calling 910-762-0492 or emailing Rachel at manager@latimerhouse.org. The first 50 ticket buyers are entered into a raffle for a private tour of the Latimer House. All guests receive a souvenir booklet.

Gina Gambony: Rachel, how long have you been working with the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society?

Rachel: I came on board back in December. However, I'd actually been at the Latimer previously. I interned there back in 2013, and I was actually a volunteer docent in 2012. I had a bit of background coming in and a great love of that house.

Gina: Do you have a strong interest in history, or in houses?

Rachel: My background is actually art history. I got a master's in 19th Century Art - concentration was actually British. So, I had to do a bit of a switch when I came here. What I love about the Latimer House is it has a fantastic collection of art, of artifacts - things like textiles and clothing - and there's a different experience when you're seeing that art in its original setting and the actual art of the house itself.

I've always looked at art and architecture is a way of interpreting history. For me, the historic house was the perfect way of combining all those loves and making history very approachable for our visitors that I feel can often be a little bit more difficult in the traditional white-walled museum setting.

Gina: So, what do you do?  I'm sure there's not a typical day.

Credit WHQR/gg
Rachel Rhine

Rachel: [laughs] No, there really isn't. It's a very multitask-oriented job. I work with the historical society. So, I'm doing things like programming for the members, planning events, planning fundraisers or grant writing for things like our education programs, which I usually facilitate as well. The day to day operations are making sure that the house is running smoothly, that we're welcoming our visitors, that were giving wonderful tours, and that the things within the house are taken care of properly - we have a really large collection. We've done quite a lot of restoration work in the past year. We've restored the library. The Lower Cape Historical Society also operates a public archives and library in Latimer House, so restoring that library has been a great project to try and make the archives and that research element of what we do a little more accessible. We're really hoping will get more students and independent researchers in because of that new environment. It's also just beautiful.

We've also restored the tea room downstairs, and we're working on restoring the peer window, which is a full length window that was essentially a door leading out into the porch - really popular in houses throughout the 19th century and they're very difficult to keep running because they're held together with a sash. The sashes frequently break, so they have to be restored. It's tricky to find someone who has that knowledge of this old large window.

So, that's what projects we're currently doing. Soon we'll be able to get out on that side porch - and we also restored the sewing room, which is a large part of what we're doing right now with the textiles. Had to branch off of that project. It was this multipurpose room that was used as a smoking room for the original owner. His wife gave birth to their children in that room - and then later on their daughters, daughters in law. It was a bright sunny room so they would do their sewing in there. So, that's where we generally our costumes and the textiles. Unfortunately, a few years ago, there was a leak in the roof and it damaged the ceiling. So, we finally went in and put in a new ceiling. It's beautiful, but as a part of that, we had to take all the clothes out, and we took a really good look at the collection, went through everything.

The other side of my job is the collection itself. So, we went through, looked at the clothes, exactly what had been displayed and when it had last been displayed, took a new look at everything - and realized they were things that hadn't been on display in 20 years! Things that don't easily fit our interpretation, for example, twenties and thirties dresses - clothes that are too fragile to be displayed frequently. For example, we have a beautiful beaded mourning gown. So, this would have been a black gown that a woman wore while she was mourning a husband or a child. And it's beautiful - but the beads are so fragile it can't be put on the mannequin. So, that's something that I would love for people to see, but we physically can't have it on display without endangering it - at least for a long period of time.

And that's kind of where we came up with this idea of: Let's pull it all out. Let's let everyone see. I have quite a few things that I'm constantly doing, but it's a fun job. I love working with the public. I love working with the collection. It's a very special place to work.

Gina: This is basically your entire collection on display, and it's fashioned from 1850 to 1940?

Rachel: Yes. The only things that aren't going on display are the pieces that I physically can't pull out of a box without worrying about them falling apart. Everything is coming out. We've got a lot of sundresses. Those were very, very popular during the Victorian period. When you come into the house, we generally have one or two on display - and we rotate those out quite frequently.

But, what will be nice is we'll be able to have them all out so people can see the varying styles, the different details. That's one of the most beautiful things about these early pieces is the detail work, the lace work, the beating, the embroidery - it's things you don't see anymore. Really being able to look at that fine detail and compare it will be really wonderful experience for everyone, I hope. But, we've got some things from the 20s and 30s. One of my favorite pieces that we realized had not been on display in a quite a while is a blue, sheer dress from 1920. It has a white collar. It's beautiful, and it was actually a wedding dress. It appears the woman in question decided to just buy a gown that she liked from a department store and wear it as her wedding dress.

That was an interesting throwback to another address that we have, which is Mary Brown's wedding dress. It's been on display on and off for decades. Anyone who's been in the Latimer House has probably seen it. It's an 1885 wedding dress. At that point, you didn't wear white for a wedding - you would just wear a really beautiful gown. So, it's browns and burgundies and gold silks - it's a beautiful dress. It's actually also one of the reasons we're doing this. That dress is probably our most precarious piece in the collection. It's very, very old. It's made out of silk, hand-embroidered, hand beaded. Pieces like that are just very, very difficult to maintain. Last time I pulled it off, we really realized it's time for it to go get restored. One of the goals of this event is to try to raise money to go get that done so that that gown will survive for generations more.

We're going to have a really wide variety. We're going to have rooms with Victorian clothes, and then we're gonna have a large collection of Edwardian close. Although, all you Downton Abbey fans, this is your chance to come in and actually see what these dresses would have looked like. Those actually were recently donated by a Latimer descendant. He was the great-grandson of the Latimer's granddaughters.

They were these high society, Newport beauties who traveled around Europe. There's a designer dress from Paris. It's absolutely incredible what they had, and more, that survived. But, generation after generation, they kept these clothes until this October when he contacted us and said that he thought this was the appropriate place for it to be. This will be the first time the public has been able to see that entire collection. We'll have a lot of later fashions as well as the unmentionables - the petticoats, the bloomers, the corsets, all of these things that were so much a part of their dress that are so alien to us today.

So, it's going to be a wide range of things. A lot of fun, really beautiful things, and it's going to be a very relaxed event people can wander through. They can spend as much time as they'd like looking at things. We're going to have guides in every room actually in period costumes. We were lucky to partner with Debbie Scheu who has provided us with accurate costumes for every period. Also, Dram Tree Shakespeare has loaned us some wonderful corsets for my docents that night. So, there'll be able to be in there in the costumes explaining to everyone asking questions about the styles. At 6:45 and at 7:15 we're actually going to have a dressing. We're a volunteer is going to be wearing a shift - which today looks like a sun dress, but that would've been their base layer - and over the shift they would wear bloomers.

A corset. Of course, a cover, anywhere from 2 to 6 petticoats, sometimes a bustle - which was literally a pillow you tied on behind you - and then your gown. So, we're going to go through all of those steps twice during the evening so people can see exactly what it took to make those elaborate silhouettes. No one has ever naturally been an hourglass or a bell or had a back end that went out four feet. Those are all things that were created by these crazy, elaborate fashions that make the things we do today seem so reasonable. It's gonna be fun to show exactly what went into that.

Gina: How do people get tickets to come to this event?

Rachel: Well, the best way to get tickets is to call or email me. If you email manager@latimerhouse.org, or if you call (910) 762-0492, we can sell tickets to you over the phone or by email - or you can stop by her house. Any of our visitors or myself can help get your tickets. We're also selling tickets the night of the event. Those tickets include a souvenir booklet which will have details about the fashions and pictures so that everyone who attends can take something home to remember the event.

It's $20 a ticket. That money is going to go towards the archives and collection funds that we will use for restoration and conservation for our wonderful collection.

Gina: Now, this is all ladies wear?

Rachel: Yes, it is. It's kind of an odd little turn of fate, but for some reason the women's things just survived more. Or, more exactly, I think they were considered more interesting. It's similar to we do today. You would save your mom's wedding dress or perhaps your daughter's prom dress. Those are the things that we get just a hundred years later versus a man's Tuxedo tends to not be valued as much. So, while those men's fashions are very interesting, we simply just don't have them in our collection. They haven't been saved. Also, men's wear, while it has varied, is a little bit more relatable throughout the generations. We'll have pictures of men's wear, but no. Everything we have will be ladies things. But gentlemen, you should still come and see. It should be a really fun evening, and I'm sure all of your girlfriends and wives will be very excited if you get them tickets.

Gina: About how many pieces do you think you have to display for this?

Rachel: I think we're going to pull out about 150 pieces. That doesn't mean that we're pulling out 150 gowns. We'll have a certain number of dresses, shirts. We have a lot of shawls, accessories, bloomers - so a lot of small objects. We're also going to be displaying some jewelry, things like that that are part of fashion. The actual number of dresses I think we're going to have is about 20-30 dresses on display.

Gina: That's a lot.

Rachel: It is a lot. We've actually had to appeal to some local businesses for mannequins. We didn't have quite enough. We have partnered with Elizabeth Lady's Boutique, Lore, Second Skin Vintage, and Jesse James and Co, and we're borrowing their mannequins and dress forms for the night of the event. A lot of things are going to be put on tables and chairs. So, not everything is going to be on a mannequin. We'll probably have about 15 things on mannequins. But you should be able to see a wide variety of dozens of accessories - lots of nightgowns, petticoats, some jewelry, and then obviously those actual dresses.

We're going to have to see how they go on the mannequins before we see exactly how many are going up and how many are going to be shown on our shown flat for protection. As I said, some of these things are things we can't display normally. So, some of that is going to be kinks on that might be worked out in the next week as we start setting up for this event. But it's going to be really something.

Gina: When a dress is restored, do you know what goes into that?

Rachel: A little bit. It depends on what you're doing. The best thing, and honestly what a lot of the funds that we raise is for, is just preserving what you have. It is so much easier to keep things maintained than it is to have to restore them. Fabrics are the most difficult thing to keep. A lot of museums and historic homes won't even accept fabric into their collection because it's so difficult and expensive to maintain. It has to be stored in archival boxes with specific acid free tissue. At times, you have to frequently refold and stuff things to prevent the folds from literally becoming brittle and separating, which is what happened with that Brown wedding dress. Because that dress was so carefully constructed - there's literally pieces of either metal or wood in the skirt. It has a built in frame so that the folds will lay perfectly.

So, those folds have always been there. They will always be there. There's no way for us to make it fall any other way. But after 140 years, those folds have started to become brittle and separate. It looks like almost tiny little rips going down. So, something like that, there's a few different options for them. They can physically go in and sew it back up. They can try to reinforce it, putting another material behind it. Just strengthen the fabric and distribute that pull. I don't, unfortunately, know a whole lot more about what goes into the process having only been on this side. I mean, conservators spend years at school so I don't want to speak for them, but they've got a few options. It depends a lot on the fabric, but the main emphasis is to try to stop damage where it is. If you've got a small tear, you want to either so it up or reinforce it so it doesn't get larger.

It's far easier to stop the damage before it happens. As with all things historical, you want to take care of what you have so that you have it for future generations.

We've got a little bit of a promotion right now. Starting today, the next 50 people who buy tickets are going to be entered into a raffle for a private tour of the house with myself. Generally, we have very specific tour we give to our visitors. But, this private tour we'll be able to kind of have a long conversation about the house going through the house. You can ask me questions. We can really see what you're interested in. Like I said, that's only for the next 50 people who buy tickets. Even though we are selling tickets at the door, you should go ahead and get your ticket and make your plan to come out next Friday night, June 8th, from 6:00 to 8:30.

Gina: What was the website again?

Rachel: It's lcfhs.org. So, this is hilarious because we just got a new website. We put it up live today, and we own the domains of various acronyms that are almost us but aren't. So, if you google hslcf.org, it redirects to our website. Because people often think historical society of Lower Cafe Fear. I've been looking at the two acronyms all day, and it is just driving me nuts. Just latimerhouse.org is so much easier to say. But you got to balance our organization and the mansion we run.

Gina: [laughs] Okay. Thank you.