When Elizabeth Miller walked into the Robbins Hunter Museum with her son on a mission to do a little exploration for a school art assignment, little did she know that a treasure trove of vintage undergarments reside just above her on the second floor.
To most, the closet packed with muslin-covered bundles on hangers and boxes of fabric pockets containing ivory colored hand stitched, hand embroidered sleeping caps, petticoats and all sorts of underclothing women wore in the mid 1800’s might just be old clothes. To Elizabeth, these items, many in pristine condition, are a delightful surprise.
So taken with the beauty and history of the museum during her visit in October, she volunteered almost on the spot. She joined the ranks of docents and is just finishing up her docent training this month. During that training, she happened upon an upstairs room where the undergarments of two local sisters, the Devenny sisters, who lived on Loudon Street in the mid 1800’s, now reside in bags and boxes.
Now, not everyone gets excited by old underwear, but to Elizabeth, a vintage clothing buff since childhood, a textile engineer by training, and a former design director for Limited Brands in fabric research and development, these bundles and boxes were an amazing, surprising find.
“These pieces are really interesting,” she said. “They’re not particularly rare, but very interesting. They tell a story about how women dressed in the mid 1800’s, wearing six or seven layers of undergarments under their outer clothes. This collection is in good condition thanks to those women who originally owned it and to those who worked to preserve it.” Elizabeth cites RHM volunteer Suzanne Kennedy for taking the initiative to create muslin preservation bags and pockets.
The clothing came to RHM from the former Lifestyle Museum in Granville, when it closed its doors in 2011. The grand old house at 121 S. Main Street, built in 1871, was then the former home of Hubert and Oese Robinson. The Robinsons lived there for the remainder of their lives. When Oese died in 1981, the house and its contents was willed to the village to become a museum. And if you remember visiting the Lifestyle Museum, you will remember that the house and its period contents was so well preserved that it became known as the Lifestyle Museum, an unusual and unique feature of Granville’s history. “She (Oese) kept everything,” Elizabeth said she learned as she began to research this vintage clothing and its origins. The home is now a private residence.
When RHM opens for the season in March 2018, the collection, now under Elizabeth’s hand, will be the opening exhibit. “When the museum closes for the winter in January, I’ll have the opportunity and time to put it together,” she said. ”I want to focus on this, I love doing research.”
Elizabeth talks nostalgically about her childhood in Wilmington, CT as the beginning of her passion. “I have been collecting vintage clothing and textiles since I was 13,” she said. “My first job was at the town library and the wonderful ladies I worked with who loved antiques. They would give me 1920’s and 1930’s clothes because they were so small in size and I could wear them. I started wearing them and researching them and have been hooked ever since.
Elizabeth was accepted into the Parsons School of Design and moved to New York after high school. She then continued her education at the Philadelphia College of Textiles. “I worked at the Paley Design Center, now The Design Center at Philadelphia University in their costume and textiles collection while earning my textile design degree.”
She also did an internship at the Allentown Art Museum in their textile collection for a summer. “I have continued to collect vintage garments and love the fabrics and history. I hope this explains why I was very excited to see a closet of muslin covered hangers and boxes!” Elizabeth now lives in Granville with her husband Jeff, and her three children.
“Museums everywhere have collections, but to be able to tie it a local family that lived here on Loudon Street, is special,” she said.
She can’t wait to get started.