By Jack Firneno
Wire Staff Writer
Three of Samuel Pennypacker’s daughters were noteworthy in their own right. As their father was busy passing landmark child labor laws as Pennsylvania’s governor in the early 1900s, they became a nurse, creative writer and occupational therapist, respectively. The eldest was also a suffragette, fighting for women’s right to vote.
“This was a time when change was occurring,” said Linda Calligari, museum educator for the Pennypacker Mills Museum in Schwenksville.
In one sense, she’s referring to the social shifts of the time: the overtures toward more education opportunities, women’s suffrage and entry into the workplace, even animal rights.
But directly she’s talking about the fashion of the times, the evolution from the more voluptuous, flowing styles of the Victorian and Edwardian era into the more narrow outfits and dresses that marked the turn of the century.
It’s the time period when Pennypacker’s daughters came of age, and the subject of “Finishing the Look: Fashion Accessories of the Victorian and Edwardian Eras” exhibit opening at Pennypacker Mills this weekend.
The exhibit spans approximately from 1900 to 1915, when Pennypacker was governor and the fashion was moving away from the “larger, slouchier” dresses that marked the end of the Victorian era.
“Think the first season of Downton Abbey,” she offered as an example of the evolving style. “We were getting away from [Queen Victoria of England] and into more narrow outfits.”
It’s also a time that, Calligari notes, people tend to forget: “Everyone kind of related history with wars, but there are periods in between, like this, that get a little lost.”
But, people can rediscover the era at Pennypacker Mills, the governor’s old estate that has remained fully furnished to represent his time there.
“Once people get here, they’re fully immersed in the early 1900s,” said Calligari.
The exhibit, which runs through next January, places special emphasis on the many accessories to the outfits of the era. Calligari described the decorative fans, purses, and silk and leather shoes and gloves on display.
“People really went overboard when they put an outfit together,” she noted. “Each piece is very unique.”
Many of the items, like parasols and feathered hats, also represent social trends of the time. The wide-brimmed hats, a focal point of the exhibit, featured decorative feathers that sparked an early outcry for wildlife conservation.
“The result was birds being slaughtered and becoming endangered, and there was a movement to try and bring people’s attention to the fact they they were sacrificing wildlife for fashion,” explained Calligari. “They were hot-button issues back then, too.”
Just as the hats kept women in style and out of the sun, so did parasols — and for an important reason.
“Today, we use umbrellas, but parasols were the thing,” said Calligari of the smaller, ornate accessories used more to block out the sun than the elements. The idea was not to have tan skin. If you did, you were probably considered a servant.”
They are indicative of a time, she continued, when opportunities for women were limited. Before Pennypacker became governor, children would be employed as young as 8 years old in dangerous jobs like coal miners.
“Most schools didn’t go beyond eighth grade because there was no one there,” explained Calligari. “If you could educate anyone in your family, it’d be the boy, and hopefully you could marry off a girl into a higher-class family where things were a little easier.”
Pennypacker’s legislation, however, required boys to be 14 and girls 16 before entering the workforce. The extra time allowed more people to continue school and break from generations of menial jobs.
“To get an education was a real gift, and the Pennypacker girls really took advantage of that,” said Calligari.
For information, call 610-287-9349 or visit http://www.montcopa.org/pennypackermills.