On Oct. 18 the James Monroe Museum re-opened with a newly restored collection of clothing.
Many of the pieces in the exhibit were worn by President James Monroe and his wife Elizabeth, and date as far back to 1773 when Monroe was a student at the College of William and Mary.
It took conservationists five years to complete the restoration of the garments on display, according to the docent, Heidi Carson-Stello, UMW ‘04.
One of the most impressive pieces was the gown that Elizabeth Monroe wore on her wedding day. Although the bodice had to be completely re-done with new fabric, the fabric on the skirt is from the 1750s.
Much of the clothing is not locked up in glass display cases.
According to Stello, UMW ’04, many items are roped off on the floor so museum visitors can see the pieces from all angles.
Junior Kendall Carty attended the exhibit and said that she enjoyed the intimate feel of the museum.
“It’s like you can still smell James Monroe and I think we should always be able to smell our historical figures,” Carty said.
The collection boasts beautiful waistcoats and vests worn by Monroe in college and during his presidency. All four of them were hand embroidered and look unlike anything one might see a man wearing today.
There is also a recreation of another dress that Elizabeth Monroe wore. The bubblegum pink gown is displayed next to a photograph of the original, which had faded considerably. The contrast is an example of the damage that light can do to clothing.
The exhibit will only run for six months because the garments are so fragile.
All of the lights in the rooms of the exhibit are kept off until people enter. The blinds are also always down as a way to minimize any harmful effects the light can have on the garments.
Although the emphasis of this exhibit is obviously on the history of James and Elizabeth Monroe through their clothing, it also reaches a wider range of people whose interests may lie more in fashion than in history.
Normally, the museum shows pieces of the family’s furniture and art collection, including the desk on which Monroe signed the Monroe Doctrine.
According to Stello, “This exhibit draws a wider range of people in who may not be interested in the Monroes.”
One of the suits in the exhibit was actually purchased by Monroe in Fredericksburg while he was working as a lawyer.
Stello noted that some of the items worn would have been considered to be out of fashion by the time Monroe wore them, but that he continued to wear tham as a nod to tradition.
“You can tell a lot about who these people were just from their clothes,” said Carty “And now I feel like I really know James and Elizabeth Monroe.”
The museum is located downtown on Charles Street and is free to students with a UMW I.D. It’s open from 10 a.m to 5 p.m Monday through Saturday and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. A guided tour takes about 30 minutes. More information about this exhibit and the museum can be found at the website: http://www.umw.edu/jamesmonroemuseum/default.php.