As a child, Winthrop University history graduate Alison Boulton spent a lot of time exploring the past with her dress-sewing, antique-dealing mother.
“She’s the person responsible for my interest in antique clothing by dragging me to every historic home on the Eastern seaboard,” Boulton said.
She specifically remembers visiting Tryon Palace, a reconstruction of the historical colonial royal governors’ palace in New Bern, N.C. While her mother focused more on end tables and vases, Boulton’s eyes were drawn to the tour guides dressed in clothing from the time period.
“The guides then were wearing garments to represent the mid-1800s,” she said. “It was the first time I really realized that this clothing fit with this house. It was a different way of living.”
Years later, Boulton’s love of historical clothing has turned into a multi-piece display now at Winthrop University’s Louise Pettus Archives on Cherry Road.
Boulton recently graduated with a degree in history and English. Last summer, she talked to history professor Jason Silverman about an independent study in the program.
She didn’t have to look far for inspiration: She proposed a vintage clothing assignment. Stipulations for the project said the clothing had to be pre-Civil War and related to South Carolina.
Through research, Boulton settled on William Aiken Jr. and his family.
Aiken, his wife, Harriet, and their daughter Henrietta – and their descendants – lived in the now-historic Aiken-Rhett Home in Charleston from 1833 until the family donated the property to The Charleston Museum in 1975.
Aiken was once governor of South Carolina and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He also was one of the state’s largest slaveholders.
The family frequently traveled to Jehossee Island in the summer months, bringing their personal servants and slaves. The island was the perfect location, she said, because it was like its own community.
Boulton selected the 1850s and spent numerous hours studying the history of the family and ladies’ fashions of the time, including sketches from “Godey’s Lady’s Book,” a fashion-oriented publication which she called “the Vogue of that time.”
In those days, she said, women didn’t have as much access to clothing as they do now.
“Clothing was not as disposable a commodity as it is now,” she said.
Boulton’s goal was to create clothing for all ages and economic background – from Harriet Aiken to her young daughter, Henrietta, to Paulette, a French woman historians believe was a maid or governess to the family.
As she learned more, Boulton added undergarments, aprons, hats and bonnets to the plan for her collection until she had amassed at least 80 items.
“I didn’t know how elaborate this was going to be when I started,” she said, laughing. “I realized I wasn’t going to learn the art of haberdashery overnight.”
There was also the issue of sewing. Boulton’s mother had made many dresses in the past, but Boulton learned as she went through the project sewing by hand, because sewing machines weren’t prominent in that time.
She said she could tell a difference in the construction of clothes she made in the beginning of the project with the last piece, a silk taffeta striped dress.
The gown cuts a deep V-neck in the front, revealing a lacy chemise that is genuine from the 1800s.
“This is the type of garment any woman or child would have worn close to their skin,” she said.
Boulton wasn’t just consistent with her painstakingly accurate stitching; she also used sewing techniques from that time period. For example, for the silk taffeta dress, she consulted a dressmaker’s handbook from the era to create a cartridge pleating along the waistline.
“That ultimately led to me sprawled out on my living room floor with a pencil nub to mark my lines and three needles pulling lengths of cotton thread,” she said.
A dress for one of the maids required a fan-front design.
Boulton had to select the right kind of fabrics, which proved somewhat of an obstacle because today’s fabrics didn’t exist in the 1850s.
The result is a collection of more than 20 pieces with dresses for children, women and slaves of the Aiken family as well as original items Boulton had found in her past travels, including chemises and a checked pattern dress.
“This really has been a wonderful educational experience,” she said. “It gave me a sense of the people who make this clothing.”
She was able to represent more than just the Aiken family, she added, referring to seamstresses.
Boulton has received a lot of praise for her work, which will be on display through Friday. Perhaps the highest praise came from her mother, who said she wanted her daughter to make her a dress this time.
As for Boulton, clothing remains the truest form of history.
“Clothing is really the best indicator of humanity,” she said. “It’s the closest we can come to the people who are long gone. If the garment remains, that’s the essence of that person.”
Want to go?
What: Archives Exhibit: “A-Dressing Jehossee: Everyday Clothing of An Antebellum Island Plantation”
When: Through Friday; exhibit hours are 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Where: Winthrop University’s Louise Pettus Archives