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What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America Hardcover – November 1, 2002

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If clothes, as they say, make the man (and now, of course, the woman), then knowledge about garments makes an individual understand the past in relation to human nature. Colonial Williamsburg curator and author (Eighteenth Century Clothing at Williamsburg, 1986), Baumgarten explores via the museum's collection the process of becoming a connoisseur of antique frocks, fabrics, mythos and meanings, life passages, alterations, and common dress. Everything's explained against a visual panoply of period paintings, artifacts, and clothing, executed in slow, sometimes meandering prose. Along the way, tidbits and informational sidebars stand out. Such as in the 1700s, when male wigs were in fashion, while at home, men removed them in favor of soft caps. Another interesting fact is that frontier legend Davy Crockett usually wore normal clothing, donning a hunting shirt only to appeal to his rural Tennessee voters. And George Washington was, in truth, taller than his forty-second successor, George W. Bush. Intended for fashion fans with enough time to wade through and reorganize fashion facts. Barbara Jacobs
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved


Beautifully produced...Well-written, well-priced,...full of pertinent details...[F]or both scholars and casual readers...[R]ecommended for all libraries. -- Library Journal

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Product Details

  • Series: Williamsburg Decorative Arts Series
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (November 1, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300095805
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300095807
  • Product Dimensions: 12.6 x 9.7 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,351,360 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Heather Forbush Hook on January 14, 2004
Format: Hardcover
At first glance, this book is amazing just for the feast it provides for the eyes just looking (and drooling) at the professional photographs of the costumes in the Colonial Williamsburg collection. When the reader really sits down and is able to read the text, the reader will find that the detail of the book is also amazing. The book does a marvelous job of explaining how clothing was used as a symbol of status, from the slave to the wealthy. It goes into deep detail the type of fabrics used, and the cut of the clothing used to achieve a certain look. It goes on to show what construction techniques and trims were used on some of the garments. A chapter on clothing from infancy to old age is also a treat and I was amazed to see that the cut of infant's clothing mirrored the cut of adult clothing very closely. I am most impressed with the use of cross-reference in the book. If a type of material or a cut of clothing is referred to in the text, a cross-referenced photo always accompanies it. Since purchasing this book, I have been able to date many items I have seen on eBay and in private collections. It is a really well written book and a must-have reference for the collector of antique fashions, designers, and museums.
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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful By felicitaz on August 31, 2003
Format: Hardcover
What? I can't believe this book hasn't been reviewed yet. Everyone who has it must be too busy reading it!
Linda Baumgarten, who has produced at least 2 other attractive books on 18th-century American clothing, has finally come out with this fine volume based on the recent Williamsburg, Va. exhibition that examined clothing from the inside out. This is particularly interesting to those of us who recreate garb of the period (for reenactment or theatrical purposes), as it contains detailed information on construction & materials; however, even someone with scant knowledge of costume & history will find it an engaging book. Ms. Baumgarten's text is "user-friendly"-- probably her association with Williamsburg has given her a good understanding of how to speak to ordinary non-costume-fanatical folk.
Lots of excellent photos and text. I was delighted to find a glazed woolen gown, among other treats. The chapter on clothing for christenings and mourning wear is an unusual feature, and the clothing timeline at the end a good visual account of the evolution of style.
My one criticism: The photos of mid-19th-century clothing and reconstructions don't belong in the book. I wish some of the thumbnails of 18th-century clothes shown in the timeline had been featured in their place.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Cynthia L. Gilbert on April 10, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This remarkable reference book consists of six chapters and a conclusion segment. So much information is included in this work that one can review it on many levels. My interest in this book is 18th century embroidery. The work of an 18th century surface embroiderer is foretold in this book and is portrayed in many venues. Embellished textiles such as stomachers, heavily embroidered pudding caps, women's cord quilted waistoats, swaddling bands for the new infant, and a yellow silk infant gown with a matching embroidered satin cap. Also, stunning embelishments on items such as spangled men's waistcoats, still unmade but outlined, on a large piece of silk are displayed with magnified detail allowing stitch colors, patterns, and directions to be studied. Included in What Clothes Reveal are beautiful examples of embroidered aprons for both the gentile ladies and the common women, different styles of pockets, covered and embroidered buttons, men's embroidered bargello wallets, and impressive men's caps. Baumgarten also included beautiful examples of ladies' fans, a wedding gown, and full maternity and nursing gown details including stays.

I ordered this book upon its release and studied it relentlessly. Afterwards I went to Colonial Williamsburg and experienced first hand this entire collection. With knowing and understanding the inside workings of this display, I was able to totally appreciate and understand the items in front of me.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By fatal_degree on November 30, 2006
Format: Hardcover
After spending a whole day at a Living History event, trying to justify spending that sort of money on a book. Which at the time was sealed and the vendor would not allow it to be opened. I finally bit the bullet and made the purchase. It is one of my all time favorite clothing books. The images are stunning, both full shots of pieces and close-ups. There are accessories, undergarments, et cetera. It includes a range of styles in the 18th century for men and women. Some children's garments. It is not all just aristocratic or high fashion, though it isn't lacking it either. But, the uberness of this book does not stop there. After I stopped devouring the pictures like a kid in a candy shop I started reading. I was impressed with the practical approach to fashion history that the author took. Instead of focusing on the outrageous and bizarre fads of fashion. The book also touches on how historians have identified, classified and labeled garments. And how they have been right or wrong in their theories, going on to explain the current position of opinion today with scholars in the field. The text flows with interesting facts and a keen wit and humor. There are quite a few amusing side bars, and a lot of "myth busters". I think this would be a welcome addition to any collection.
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