Canaan’s fashionable past on display at Hunt

Michele Majer provided a detailed exploration of Falls Village’s extensive fashion heritage at Hunt Library Saturday, March 23.

Patrick L. Sullivan

Canaan’s fashionable past on display at Hunt

FALLS VILLAGE — Around the turn of the 20th century, Falls Village was a bustling hub of commercial activity.

Especially if you were in the market for new clothing.

That was the surprising message from Michele Majer’s talk at the David M. Hunt Library Saturday, March 23.

“Dressing Falls Village at the Turn of the 20th Century” was the second of two talks given in conjunction with the library’s current exhibit, “From the Great Falls to the Hilltops: Early 20th Century Photography from the Falls Village-Canaan Historical Society,” which runs through May 3.

Majer, from Cora Ginsburg LLC, a New York-based company specializing in textiles, and who taught courses in textiles and clothing at Bard College for almost three decades, said when she looked at the photographs in the exhibit, she wondered where the people bought their clothes.

She dug into the question, relying heavily on the archives of the Connecticut Western News, published between 1871 and 1970.

Here are some of the options Falls Villagers in search of sartorial improvements had in town: Mrs. E.C. Cowdrey, milliner; F.C. Peete, shoemaker; John Belden, clothier.

And that’s just a sample.

Majer noted that by 1900 the emergent ready-to-wear clothing industry was changing the way Americans of all stripes dressed.

While the wealthy could still opt for custom made clothes, there were high-end RTW options.

And for ordinary citizens, there were an increasing number of affordable garments.

Majer said that New York City was the hub of the RTW business, with recent immigrants, many of them Jewish and with prior experience in the clothing trade, staffing the factories and, sometimes, sweatshops.

New York was close enough to Falls Village by train for merchants to replenish their stocks.

The women in the exhibit photographs are mostly clad in variations of a shirtwaist and skirt. Majer said this was a practical choice, as the top could be swapped out to create a fresh outfit. “It was a new freedom in women’s dress,” she said.

She said it is not a coincidence that this new freedom coincided with the rise of the women’s suffrage movement.

Men typically wore three-piece suits starting in the latter half of the 19th century.

Like the women, men swapped out the tops — but just the collars and cuffs.

Majer said this did not mean that people stopped making their own clothes. She showed newspaper ads for bolts of cloth, and noted that Mrs. E.C. Crowdrey was also a representative for the Singer Sewing Machine company.

There was a highly technical discussion of women’s underwear that was beyond this reporter’s scope. Majer did say that at the turn of the 20th century women’s undergarments were “much more erotic” than what came before.

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