Ellis Island: gateway to America

Between 1892 and 1954 some 12 million immigrants passed through the immigration station at Ellis Island on their journey to becoming American. Arriving primarily from eastern and southern Europe, they brought with them spiritual and material elements of the vibrant cultures that they had left behind. Among their most cherished belongings were their traditional costumes, which served as a link to their heritage, offered a sense of community, and embodied fundamental elements of their worldview. Packed neatly in trunks, suitcases and cloth bundles, peasants brought to the New World linen shirts and blouses, pleated skirts, embroidered aprons, sheepskin coats, beaded vests, wedding bonnets, shawls, belts, boots, gloves, and countless other accessories. For most immigrants arriving from rural Europe at this time, life without these precious garments would have been unthinkable.

Folk costumes in peasant culture

In traditional peasant societies throughout Europe – as well as in other places around the world – folk costumes served many important functions beyond the basic role of body covering. For several centuries, it was a fundamental part of the education, socialization, courtship, faith, and everyday lives of peasants. Clothing displayed belonging to a specific community, group or tribe. It offered spiritual protection and warded off evil spirits trying to enter the body. It was used to display one’s wealth and to create bonds between families through dowries. Complex systems of unwritten rules and codes existed that allowed people to learn about others by ‘reading’ their clothing. Knowledge of local clothing rules made it possible to ascertain someone’s marital and social status, their religion, age, wealth, and family situation. It provided insight into the number of children someone had, their profession, skills, and other personal information just by looking at them. Children learned to read these codes from an early age through participation in family customs, games and regional festivals. While industrialization and globalization eventually led to a weakening of regional clothing systems and diminished the importance of folk dress in Europe, it’s role in peasant culture at the time of mass emigration to America cannot be overstated.

Assimilation to American life

Given the importance of folk dress in traditional culture, it is easy to understand why so many immigrants wanted to bring their Old World clothing with them to greet America. Prominent photographers such as Lewis Hines, Augustus Sherman, and Edwin Levick captured new arrivals in their traditional garb, often donning their finest costumes specifically for the moment of arrival. In the context of peasant culture, such a moment would have been seen as an important rite of passage, equivalent to a wedding or baptism, and was deserving of the most festive clothing. Sadly, at the very moment they were celebrating their arrival in America, their garments were stripped of their spiritual, cultural and material value and were seen as garish and primitive. A new culture required new clothing with a different set of rules and functions. Aid workers and family members were on hand at the station to provide immigrants with western-style garments that would help them in the assimilation process. Written accounts document the main hall being littered with traditional clothing that had been discarded by immigrants after being encouraged to abandon their gaudy rags in favor of proper American dress. Eventually as more peasants emigrated to join family members already in America, they were advised ahead of time to leave their traditional clothing behind.

Heritage, handcraft and heirlooms

Once a source of pride, traditional clothing became a source of shame for those trying to find their place in America. For fear of being seen as an outsider in their new home, few immigrants preserved their traditional garments in order to pass them on to future generations. On the rare occasion that something was saved, it was often hidden away and the history and stories associated with it were lost with time. It was not until several decades had passed that people began to take interest in sharing their heritage and developed a longing for the things they once discarded. A rise in ethnic festivals and cultural events celebrating diversity around the country led to the simplified recreation of family costumes using materials available to them in America. Given the growing interest in genealogical research over the past decade, it’s no surprise that more people are interested in owning authentic garments related to their family’s history and in understanding the function of grandma’s old stitched bonnet. Additionally, with a renewed interest in handcraft around the globe, new generations have become inspired by traditional arts and crafts such as embroidery, weaving, lace, and knitting, used in ethnic clothing throughout the world. These various forces have created a new demand for original ethnic garments at a time when they are increasingly difficult to find. With so much lost during the last century due to modernization and technological advancement these are the final moments to collect, preserve and document the traditional folk fashions that once played such an important role in the lives of our ancestors.

Ellis Island Vintage: preservation & education

For nearly two decades Jan Letowski, founder of Ellis Island Vintage, has remained devoted to the mission of studying and safeguarding fading folk dress traditions. He has conducted numerous field research trips to eastern Europe and worked with museums and private collections in the United States and abroad to gain a deeper knowledge of regional clothing styles. As with any fashion, folk costumes have changed and modernized over time and understanding their various stages of development is paramount in their successful research, collection and exhibition. Garments originating from the same country, region, village, or even house, aren’t necessarily suitable – in historical terms – to be worn or displayed together and each piece must be assessed based on era, origin, occasion, and function. At Ellis Island Vintage, great pride is taken in historical research and every attempt is made to present each individual garment and complete costume with accurate information, adding significant value to your investment. While peasant textiles remain undervalued when compared to other art forms, they offer incredible insight into the daily lives and traditions of our ancestors and will soon become a rarity in the marketplace. In addition to their historical significance, traditional costumes can be appreciated for their craftsmanship, individuality, whimsy, sophistication, and design, affording them the spotlight of countless museum exhibitions worldwide.

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