While it’s been said that style trends go in and out with the tides, it perhaps has never been more true than during the 1800s. “When Women Wore Whales: The Story of How Whalebone Shaped 19th-Century Fashion,” a new exhibition at the Suffolk County Historical Society in Riverhead, explores how the colossal marine mammals once largely defined the female silhouette.
“I was sitting here in what is essentially Suffolk County’s attic, and I realized this wonderful tie to Long Island’s history through fashion,” says Richard Doctorow, the historical society’s collections manager. As the show’s curator, Doctorow has sifted through some 25,000 objects of the museum’s permanent holdings to assemble a compelling display of whaling paraphernalia, prints, photographs, corsets, parasols and dresses illustrating the surprising connection between period attire and Long Island’s once-thriving whaling industry.
Women in the 19th century achieved their shapely bodices and billowed skirts with hoops, ribs and shafts made from baleen, a keratin material (think hoofs, claws or horns) used by filter-feeding whales to snare plankton and krill.
“It was the plastic of the day,” explains Doctorow. “It is light, strong and flexible, and it was used not just for fashion but also for buggy whips, eyeglass frames, and, its shavings, as stuffing for cushions and mattresses.”
Photographs in the show dating from late 1800s capture the baleen in its natural setting in the whale’s mouth, as well as being cleaned, stacked, dried and weighed aboard ship. “The men would catch the whale, chain it to the side of the boat and get the blubber off fast to beat the sharks eating their profit,” he notes. The fat was rendered for whale oil.
When the hunters were not directly engaged in harvesting the baleen, they were busy engraving busks — stiffening strips for a corset — with intricate designs. “They were gifts the whalemen brought home to their wives and sweethearts," says Doctorow, noting a number of examples in the show.
In addition to the whaling images and voyage charts, the exhibition features reprints of fashion plates from Godey’s Lady’s Book, a magazine reporting the latest fashions alongside articles, dress patterns and sheet music. The group of exquisite 19th century gowns on view, roughly represented with one per decade, documents the evolving baleen-supported styles of the period.
“We have an incredibly vast selection of garments and textiles — hundreds, probably into the thousands — that don’t see the exhibition floor,” says Victoria Berger, the historical society’s executive director. “It is wonderful to have a fashion show that not only brings the items out of storage, but places them in the context of local history.”
WHEN | WHERE 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday, through Dec. 28, Suffolk County Historical Society Museum, 300 W. Main St., Riverhead
INFO $1 to $10, 631-727-2881, suffolkcountyhistoricalsociety.org