CONCORD — “Fresh Goods: Shopping for Clothing in a New England Town, 1750-1900” has a wordy, bland title. That’s OK, since the show itself, which runs at the Concord Museum through July 8, is neither. Instead, it’s charming, informative, and frequently surprising. Who knew that women’s dresses in the 18th and early part of the 19th centuries didn’t have sewn pockets? Instead, a dress would have slits through which wearers could reach pockets worn beneath the dress, like a pouch.
The museum’s David Wood curated “Fresh Goods,” with Jane and Richard Nylander serving as consulting curators. They’ve assembled some 100 items, most from the museum’s collection. Those items happily lie at the intersection of utility and beauty. The clothes in the show were meant to be worn, yes. They were also meant to be admired.
During the years “Fresh Goods” covers, people — consumers as we’d now say — didn’t buy ready-made clothes, other than in rare instances. They purchased fabrics — cotton or wool, sometimes silk or satin — which they would fashion into their own clothes. Less often, they might have a tailor or seamstress do so.
There are nearly a dozen dresses in the show, from throughout the 19th century. One of them is a maternity dress, circa 1855: Practicality and appearance combine. Also on display are children’s clothes and an 18th-century gentleman’s outfit. Peacocks, remember, are male.
A few of the dresses are fancy. One’s from Paris. Most could have been worn by the March sisters in “Little Women.” That sense of the everyday, how people lived then being presented to people living now, is central to “Fresh Goods.”
Other items are less-elaborate forms of clothing or are clothing-related. Some are small and beautiful: a gold thimble, a pair of handsomely embroidered needle cases, several bonnet ribbons. Others are a bit bigger and often no less beautiful: shawls from Scotland and India, including one owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s first wife; eight pairs of women’s shoes (both flats and heels, but no stilettos, thank you very much), along with a pair of blue kid-leather high-button boots (the buttons are glass). A man’s beaver hat from 1825 looks so big it makes 10-gallon hats seem economy size by comparison.
Even as it offers for inspection objects of considerable attractiveness, “Fresh Goods” delves into the mechanics of material culture. In the early 19th century, Concord had a half-dozen dry-goods stores. The show includes several account books. Or there was the traveling cobbler who’d arrive in Concord every fall, stay with a family for a week while making their shoes, then move on to another household.
A display of store items includes goods from England (crockery), China (porcelain), India (tea), the West Indies (tortoiseshell), and, of course the United States (holloware). In however rudimentary a fashion, what we would now call globalization was already happening in the early 19th century, 20 miles outside of Boston.
“Fresh Goods” is part of Mass Fashion, a collaborative effort among eight local cultural institutions with current or upcoming exhibitions that look at clothing and culture. The other participants are the Museum of Fine Arts, Peabody Essex Museum, Massachusetts Historical Society, Old Sturbridge Village, the Trustees of Reservations, Fuller Craft Museum, and Historic New England. For more information, go to www.massfashion.org.
FRESH GOODS: Shopping for Clothing in a New England Town, 1750-1900
At Concord Museum, 200 Lexington Road, Concord, through July 8. 978-369-9763, www.concordmuseum.orgMark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.