Fashionable Finds at Lyndhurst and Filoli
When we think of historic sites across the country, the images that come to mind might be stately buildings or majestic landscapes. But what about the people who once lived and worked in these places? How can historic sites use the experiences of these individuals to make their stories come alive?
This summer, two National Trust Historic Sites each debuted exhibits that helped answer those questions.
Filoli, a National Trust Historic Site in Woodside, California, opened Fashionable Filoli: Historic Costumes. Comprised of original items from Filoli’s collections, recreations made by Filoli volunteers, and objects loaned from local community members, the exhibit displays the lifestyle of the Bourn and Roth families that lived at Filoli throughout much of the 20th century.
At Lyndhurst, in Tarrytown, New York, the Defying Labels: New Roles, New Clothes exhibit uses the clothing of Helen, Anna, and Edith Kingdon Gould to highlight stories from the Gould women’s varied and interesting lives. The exhibit also illustrates the dynamic change in women’s roles between the late-19th and early 20th centuries.
To learn more about the impact of these exhibits and how they shape our understanding of these historic sites, I sat down with two National Trust staff members who visited the exhibits earlier this summer.
Carrie Villar, the John & Neville Bryan senior manager of collections, visited Filoli several weeks ago. Diana Maxwell, manager of preservation grants, spent a day at Lyndhurst with her family. Their responses to my questions are presented successively, below.
Which artifacts were your favorite? What made them so special?
Carrie: At Filoli, there was a vignette of the Bourn family celebrating the end of Prohibition. There was a note describing how Mr. and Mrs. Bourn were “too sober to attend” the party. You could just imagine the time and the people seated around the table wearing those clothes. It illustrated that this was more than just a fancy house, it was a home.
Diana: One of my favorites was one of the earliest pieces; a purple silk dress that belonged to Helen Gould. Its style and elegance really made you feel transported to another era. The details were incredible; it almost seemed like the dress belonged in a costume exhibit instead of being a piece that someone actually wore.
Many of the items on display belonged to or represented women who lived there. What did these objects tell you about these women and the times in which they lived?
Carrie: I had not been to Filoli before, but seeing the clothes and objects in place at the site really helped bring the people to life. The women’s clothes were the most interesting part of the exhibit; they were colorful and festive, and many had a lot of adornments and accessories. I found myself thinking, “Would I wear that?” looking at a few of them.
Diana: I didn’t realize that Helen Gould was so ahead of her time. She didn’t marry until she was 45 and was involved with a lot of causes in a time when that was not expected of women. She also traveled quite a bit, even to Africa—one of the khaki suits she wore on that tour is on display. She was not a woman who did what was expected of her at the time.
What did you find most interesting about the exhibit? Did anything surprise you?
Carrie: I thought it was interesting to see how many pieces had been loaned back to Filoli from members of the community. Some of them were descendants of families that had been a part of the social circles at Filoli during the Bourn and Roth periods. There were also a number of pieces that were recreations made by some of the volunteers at Filoli. It was great to see that level of investment in the site and its story from the community.
Diana: I hadn’t really thought about the women who lived at Lyndhurst previously, but you get a sense of these incredible lives by looking at their clothes; from Victorian dresses, which were very confining, to the later styles of the 1920s. It was great to see the depth of the collections at Lyndhurst—I wasn’t aware they had so many objects that aren’t normally on display. The exhibit was also partially funded by one of the National Trust’s Cynthia Woods Mitchell Fund grants, so it was great to see that funding in action.