When Mary Doering inherited a small collection of 19th-century clothing from her great aunt as a teenager in the late 1960s, her desire to dress up in a beautiful striped silk dress and paisley shawl came second to her collector's instincts.
"There was always the temptation to dress up in them, but I couldn't bring myself to do it because of the beauty of the pieces, with their silk and detailed trimmings," said Doering, curator of "Fashionably Independent: The Styles of the Federal Period" at the Montpelier Mansion in Laurel.
Doering, of Falls Church, has added several hundred items to her collection since acquiring those first pieces of antique clothing about 30 years ago. The costume curator's collection is composed of gifts and items bought from dealers in New York and London. Together, her pieces reflect the range of stylistic and technological changes that took place in fashion during the 18th and 19th centuries.
The exhibit focuses on how fashion changed in the Federal Period as a result of the United States' newfound independence. Doering has placed clothing throughout the Georgian-style house, according to the museum's interpretation of each room. For instance, on display in the Victorian gallery is a fancy blue silk dress with floral gold pattern from the early 1850s, and in upstairs bedrooms are a printed cotton wrapping gown, women's undergarments and a linen nightcap and night shift, which is like a gown. Other garments on exhibit throughout the two wings of the house are colorful embroidered men's waistcoats, a riding habit, informal jackets, a white embroidered muslin dress, a gold evening dress, jewelry, framed fashion prints, handbags, shoes and stays, which are similar to corsets.
"You get a sense of the articles of clothing people wore at different times of the day and what it was like to get dressed," Doering said. "Clothing was made by hand. It was a valuable commodity, so there was a concept of using the clothing and the textiles and re-using and adapting it. Whereas today, when we don't like something we have because it's not comfortable or it's the wrong size, we tend to think it's disposable," Doering said.
Doering works as a volunteer and teaches a costume course for the Smithsonian Institution, where she developed her interest in antique costumes during an undergraduate internship. She has also worked at the Valentine Museum in Richmond and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and has loaned pieces of clothing to national institutions as well as to Darnall's Chance House Museum in Upper Marlboro and Riversdale in Riverdale Park.
To display Doering's collection at Montpelier, museum manager Mary Jurkiewicz had to construct makeshift mannequins out of polyethylene foam because today's dummies are far too large to fit the turn-of-the-century clothes, designed for a population of less muscular, smaller people.
Some of the clothing is so delicate that it cannot be placed on the mannequin-like structures and must be laid flat on acid-free surfaces or hung in a special way. "We're so lucky that she's willing to share her objects with the public because it is damaging to even bring them into the light," Jurkiewicz said.
Her favorite part of the exhibit is the colorful men's waistcoats. "The intricate embroidery work is so beautiful that you would never see men wearing something like that today. You look at it and say, 'I want to wear that' although it's a man's vest."
"Fashionably Independent: The Styles of the Federal Period" will be on exhibit from 1 to 4 p.m. Nov. 1 to Dec. 1 at Montpelier Mansion, 9401 Montpelier Dr., Laurel. Mary Doering will give gallery talks at 2 p.m. Nov. 1 and 10 and a slide lecture at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 20. Museum admission is $3 for adults, $2 for seniors and $1 for children ages 5 to 18. 301-953-1376.