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Once Eileen Hanavan got some help with fastening all the hooks and eyes around the waist and up the front, the stiff-but-not-scratchy cranberry suit with black velvet and chenille trim fit as if it was made for her.

She stood up straighter in this outfit from the 1890s. There were no zippers and it didn't have the give of the jeans and boots she usually wore on the weekend motorcycle rides with her boyfriend. She liked the contrast.

“It's like playing dress-up in my grandmother's attic,” said Hanavan, a slim 5-foot-7-inch, size-6 brunette who started modeling for fundraising fashion shows 20 years ago at a friend's suggestion. “Except it's exquisite clothing, exquisite fabric and tailoring and embroidery.”

It was a spring Saturday afternoon and Hanavan and seven other volunteer models were in the attic of the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site in the old Wilcox mansion on Delaware Avenue.

They were getting ready for a fashion show – with clothes from same decades as “Downton Abbey” – that would reveal just a tiny selection of the 10,000 vintage dresses, petticoats, hats, shoes and gloves that fill racks, closets and shelves in third-floor rooms that were once the maids' quarters.

Drably named “Costume Resource Center” is anything but, with garments that tell the story – one ostrich-feathered hat, a hoop skirt, beaded evening bag and lacey wedding dress at a time – of Buffalo's own Gilded Age at the turn of the last century and beyond.

Many of the storied clothes, mostly from the 1840s through the 1940s, were donated by families with names that have forgotten cachet. The committee of volunteers, who mend and research like detectives and librarians, have made their belongings into modern celebrities.

Like most of the fashion shows, the 80, $30 tickets to this afternoon's luncheon in the airy room on the second floor of the carriage house, sold out within days.

Bombazine and beyond

On the Thursday before the Downton show, the costume committee of 10 met around a table in the open room used for the parties at the site. They come together every Thursday to look after the lovely and mysterious old clothes stored on the floor above: a warren of third-floor attic rooms where the Wilcox's maids once lived.

About half of the women are seamstresses. Their research includes sifting through old copies of the Ladies Home Journals and one yellowed Sears catalog – great for figuring out which undergarments went with what era.

While reading a Buffalo newspaper from 1895, Nancy Barnwell, a former public school librarian, puzzled over this description of an outfit worn to a big party, “Mrs. Gladstone's toilet was magnificent.”

Barnwell looked and looked in old dictionaries until she discovered a meaning that made sense: a “rarified costume.”

“It's just the most fascinating use of the word,” she said. But why? “Are they pretentious? And, that's why they're using it?”

Questions of fashion have fascinated committee chair Patty Hain, 80, since the late 1970s when donations first started coming in.

A fan of Buffalo history, the former teacher's aide signed up as a site volunteer in 1971, the year it opened.

“I just walked in off the street,” she said. “I had to learn it all from scratch.”

Now she knows about fabrics such as bombazine – a mix of silk and wool – that aren't made any more.

She's learned that sewing machines weren't invented until 1848 so things stitched entirely by hand were probably made before then.

One of her favorite items in the collection is beautiful in its intricacy: a two-piece dress from the Civil War era made entirely with French ribbon. Stitched and coiled to make a hoop skirt shaped like a bell, it is olive green with purple and gold flowers sewn in.

She could tell from the old needle marks that the bodice was remade and expanded with ruffles that had once been on the skirt.

“The inside is as interesting as the outside,” she said. “We think maybe it was made for a pregnancy.”

The biggest lesson of all of her fashion study? “How important clothing was,” she said.

“Your social status was determined by the clothes you wore,” said Hain. “It was more superficial than it was today, but there was a greater class difference.”

The collection began

The site, now part of the National Park Service, was nearly torn down for a parking lot in the 1960s when the old Wilcox mansion languished after its previous restaurateur owner closed down. Its place on Delaware Avenue, a few doors away from the private women's “20th Century Club,” was a prime high-society location.

Soon the women from “prominent” families decided the site was the right place for clothes too old to wear and too fabulous to throw out. Hain remembers a Mrs. Notman and a Mrs. Heydt, who were among the first to drop things off – by the hundreds.

They were followed by Kate Butler, the late publisher of The Buffalo Evening News who married into this newspaper's founding family. Her old negligee, circa 1920, is one of the best things Hanavan has worn for one of the annual fashion shows devoted to undergarments. She tries to imagine the life that included a need for a cream-colored dressing gown with applique flowers, mink trim and drapery weights hidden in the back so it hung straight.

“It's things like that you're never going to see,” Hanavan said. “It's the upper echelon who had the money to spend in this way.”

So many dresses, undergarments, shoes, handbags, gloves and stockings piled in since those early donations that the CRC headquarters in the former maids' quarters is nearly out of space.

Clothes fill what once were small bedrooms along a hallway at the top of stairs that now lead to museum exhibits and rooms styled with Victorian furniture and curtains like the Wilcoxes would have had.

Bustles, hoops, crinolines and corsets were pressed together and balanced on hangers in one closet. Hats were piled on an open shelf, one ringed with pale pink ostrich feathers all in a line like blades of grass.

Most of all, there are racks and racks covered in sheets and labeled with signs, “Furs,” “Beaded garments,” “1870.” The first dress under the cover of “Before 1860” revealed a pink almost candy-striped dress with a narrow waist that tapered into a “V” framed with tiny gathers.

Corsets permanently squished rib cages, said Lynn Gerber, who wrote the script for the Downton Abbey fashion show that afternoon. Nowadays even naturally petite women and girls have a hard time fitting into a dress like that, she said.

At a corner nook where parasols, some too fragile to open, gathered, Gerber plucked out an engraved gold tipped cane – “William Anderson, presented by employees of AM&A's, May 29, 1882” – for one of the outfits that could use a walking stick.

The costume center has had to get more selective about donations it's willing to accept.

“We're still taking things,” said Gerber, who was drawn in to the committee because of her personal collection of old purses, “but it's gotta be unusual.”

A new generation

Owned by the federal government, the site is run by a foundation charged with raising half of its $600,000 budget.

Last year, a half dozen of the 80-ticket shows brought in about $45,000. With the next Downton Abbey show set for a dinner – Aug. 21 – already half sold out, the fashions attract a steady audience to this decidedly old-fashioned place that in recent years has been working to update itself with a carriage house-gift shop addition and new multimedia-infused house tours.

During the winter holidays, “Girls Night Out” evenings have featured lingerie, sparkly dresses and champagne and attracting the 30- and 40-something set. The wildly popular bridal show, last held in 2007, will be back next year.

“We are seeing that new wave,” said Janice Kuzan, assistant director.

“For many years I think we were –I don't want to say invisible – [but] people don't realize that a president was inaugurated in a private home in Buffalo, New York,” she said. “When you sit back and think about it, it's pretty amazing. People are realizing this isn't a sleepy little historic house museum.”

Back in time

The Saturday afternoon of the fashion show, there was action upstairs in the maid's quarters, where women were getting dressed, and downstairs in the big open room above the carriage house. There luncheon tables were set with small bouquets of lillies. Women in pearls and gold brooches ate cucumber tea sandwiches and sipped tea from flowered china cups as they waited for the clothes.

Joan Josephson, who sometimes works as a volunteer, sat at the table closest to the front. In the last decade she has been pleased by how the T.R. Site seems to have blossomed. Buffalo is a compartmentalized city and, she said, the Wilcox-mansion-turned-national-park and the clothes in its attic are a microcosm of a mostly bygone age, a last bastion of pleasant, civilized society.

Since the T.R. collection is too vast to see all at once, she said she tries to go to one or two shows a year and glimpse what she can.

“It's a world that will never be again,” she said before Gerber walked to the lectern.

She wore a slate blue velvet dress, a simple, straight waist from the 1920s – “This is wonderful. I can move in this,” she said upstairs. “It's like having a nightie on” – and began to explain the frilly, beribboned white underwear on headless mannequins standing beside her.

“These ties are elastic so they can grow with the pregnancy,” she said tugging at a maternity corset made by the Larkin company.

Then, the models stepped onto the floor, like figures from old paintings and novels. The woman in a flat straw hat and a white, ankle-length “athletic” skirt could have been a player from a Winslow Homer croquet scene.

“It's difficult to imagine those ladies breaking a sweat,” Josephson said.

Another model looked ready for some Great Gatsby party involving champagne and fountains in a World War I-era black dress that sparkled with sequins and beads.

When Hanavan arrived, she could hear her skirt swishing as she stepped slowly around the tables so the women could admire her. To her, it seemed like a real Downton Abbey experience. Like the public television series with its stories about the separate lives of the aristocracy and their servants, she had gone from one world to another.

Her center of gravity changed. In the fitted silk that would have been too expensive for an ordinary person to afford, she, for an hour or so, was a prim and proper woman who didn't slouch. When she sat down, she sat down very straight.

“It's just kind of fun how that happens,” she said. “It can transport you.”



email: mkearns@buffnews.com