By Victoria Hecht
Examine an 18th-century gown and its folds and seams will speak, whispering hints about the wearer and insight into the garment’s purposes over time.
Countless gowns have spoken to Janae Whitacre, Colonial Williamsburg’s mistress milliner and mantuamaker, during her 32 years with The Margaret Hunter Shop. This month, the interpretive site will celebrate its 60th anniversary with “Millinery Through Time,” a conference two years in the planning. The conference will be held March 16 to 19 at the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg.
The modern definition of millinery – tailored and specially designed hats and trim – is far from the colonials’ interpretation, a broad and diversified trade that included clothing. Millinery shops were usually owned by women and sold fabrics that would be sewn into caps and cloaks, shirts and shifts, aprons, neckerchiefs and aprons, among other apparel.
As a businesswoman, a milliner might also make cloaks and bonnets, mend and repair fans and lace, and do embroidery, like the real Margaret Hunter did in her day, Whitacre said.
Little is known about Margaret Hunter, who apparently came to Williamsburg in 1767 after working in the millinery business in England. Margaret is thought to have worked at her sister Jane’s shop until 1771 when she advertised her own shop. An advertisement that appeared in 1780 indicates she was still in business at that time. She died in 1787.
Just as the definition of millinery has changed, so, too, has The Margaret Hunter Shop and the Duke of Gloucester street building that houses it. The structure was built in the 1700s and, in that century, served as a merchant store, then as an apothecary and, eventually, a millinery shop until about 1800. It saw service as a dress shop in the 1800s, though much of its history after that time is unknown, Whitacre said.
By 1928, though, it was an auto repair shop before being purchased for the Colonial Williamsburg restoration. After restoration it debuted as a grocery, then became a silversmith, and in 1954 re-opened as the millinery shop.
In its early years the shop’s shelves had glass doors, behind which were displayed antique sewing items, dolls, fans, hats, waistcoat fronts and shoes. Those items were sent to the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum in the 1980s. From the 1950s through the ‘70s, before Colonial Williamsburg’s retail stores opened, the millinery shop sold soaps, perfumes, toys and a decidedly un-18th-century refreshment – Coke.
Today, the shop’s mission is interpretive, offering a window into the trades of the milliner, mantuamaker and tailor, the latter represented by journeyman tailor supervisor Mark Hutter and apprentice Michael McCarty. Sarah Woodyard and Abby Cox are the shop’s apprentice milliners and mantuamakers.
Tailoring was Williamsburg’s biggest trade in the early 1770s, and though it wasn’t customary for a tailor and milliner to share the same space, it wasn’t unheard of, Hutter said. Both trades’ representation at The Margaret Hunter Shop “offers a broader spectrum of trades and allows us to keep the shop open seven days a week,” he added.
With fabric the colonies’ biggest import and “people spending more of their income on their clothing, by far, than they do today, fashion was integral to the 18th-century economy,” Whitacre said. To keep abreast of the styles in England, shopkeepers might receive some ready-made millinery goods from overseas and observe people getting off the boats at Yorktown’s harbor.
All classes of Williamsburg citizens, Hutter said, would have relied on tailors and mantuamakers, because “you’re not coming just for your better clothing; you’re coming for all of your fitted clothing. Farm hands, field slaves, fashionable gentlemen and ladies, all were our customers.”
To immerse themselves in the past, The Margaret Hunter Shop’s staff take special orders, make clothing for museum exhibits and Colonial Williamsburg’s character interpreters and more.
“One of the ways we try to climb into our 18th-century milliners’ and mantuamakers’ minds is by not only doing the work, but also reading the same newspapers, books and current events, so that at least we understand the life that they may have been living,” said Whitacre, who on occasion interprets as Margaret Hunter, using the language of the day.
And, of course, studying true period clothing in Colonial Williamsburg’s collection gives the shop’s modern-day tradespersons the ultimate glimpse into the work of yesteryear’s milliners, mantuamakers and tailors.
“It’s amazing the kind of information that a garment can reveal,” Whitacre said. “If you look at an original gown carefully, you can see, for example, where it was pleated in a previous design, or where it was pieced and patched. The more we investigate, the more we find we need to learn.”
Want to learn more about 18th-century fashion and the evolution of the millinery trade from colonial times to the present? “Millinery Through Time,” the millinery shop’s 60th-anniversary conference, will be held March 16 to 19 at the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg. Advance registration is $300. View the agenda and register here. Visit The Margaret Hunter Shop from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Victoria Hecht is a Norfolk-based freelance writer.