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Historic Havens: Historic Clothing

By Lori Draz

This month, The Journal focuses on beauty and fashion. It is also Black History Month, so let’s explore some of historic sites that showcase fashions of the past and history of the times when they were in vogue. This month, Marlpit Hall welcomes your visit to the exhibit, “Beneath the Floorboards: Whispers of the Enslaved.”

This exhibition reinterprets the Monmouth County Historic Association’s colonial-era historic houses to include the stories of the enslaved African Americans who once resided there. 

The story of slavery’s roots and the complex dynamics of daily life and relationships among the enslaved are told through the lives of seven individuals who once lived at Marlpit Hall and includes extensive archival documentation, archaeological evidence and objects from the association’s museum collection – some on public view for the first time. You will also see seven mannequins wearing clothing that was carefully researched using Monmouth County runaway advertisements, allowing maximum authenticity. Members of the association’s volunteer Sewing Group created the garments, and many went through an “aging” process to make them look as though they’d been worn repeatedly. 

The exhibit is operated by the Monmouth County Historic Association (MCHA) at their Marlpit Hall property, located at 137 Kings Highway in Middletown. “Beneath the Floorboards: Whispers of the Enslaved” at Marlpit Hall is open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 4 pm. To learn more or arrange group visits, email

If you prefer looking at some exquisite selections online, visit the e-museum at There, you can linger and read about these treasures that include dresses, coats and accessories. Some of the items include a strapless evening gown by Anne Lowe, a trailblazing African American designer who gained national attention when she designed and created the bridal party’s and Jacqueline Bouvier’s wedding dress for her marriage to John F. Kennedy. Additionally, in 1946 Olivia de Haviland wore a Lowe dress when she received the Best Actress Academy Award for her performance in “To Each His Own.” 

Strapless evening gown by Anne Lowe

Another stunner is the circa-1885 woman’s two-piece day dress in deep purple, lightweight wool accented by black wool Gothic Revival tracery motifs on the bodice skirt hem. 

There’s also Sarah Josephine Conover’s elegant brown velvet dolman cape, which came from New York’s stylish James McCreery and Company department store. The curator notes that shoppers could select from a dazzling array of silks, linens and other fabrics, laces, ready-made garments and numerous other accessories and “ladies furnishings.” The building, damaged by fire in 1971, was converted into apartments and still stands at Broadway and 11th Street. Dolman capes are distinctively styled and were popular from about 1876 to the early 1880s. They feature elongated front panels and short backs to fit gracefully over the bustled fashions of the time.

Velvet dolman cape from New York’s James McCreery and Company department store

The collection also includes menswear items like this extraordinarily elegant man’s navy blue wool broadcloth cutaway coat. Designed to be worn to for the most special event and formal occasions like presentations to the Royal court, it has shaped sleeves and vented skirts tapering dramatically toward the back. The coat is made with a pair of left and right hip pockets with flaps, wide cuffs with three functional button closures, and a front closure comprised of eight buttons. The coat is lined with dark olive twilled silk, heavily quilted along the shoulders and upper chest areas. The pockets are lined with coarse white linen. Its head-turning, intricate and extensive embroidery is along the collar, front, cuffs and tails. The embroidery incorporates elaborate gold bullion in twining grape leaves, tendrils, vines and grape bunches. Spangles and sequins are used in the centers of selected grape bunches, while others are sewn in satin stitch. The large, circular buttons feature single leaves and tendrils, outlined with chain stitch.

Man’s navy blue wool broadcloth cutaway coat

The collection holds more than 1,000 historic clothing and accessory items, most with connections to Monmouth residents. New garments are added every month, and they even feature “Fashion Friday” social media posts on Facebook and Instagram, so followers can enjoy weekly new posts.

Not only are the garments remarkable in their designs and longevity, each represents a moment in our historic evolution. To see more, visit

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