Rebecca Jumper Matheson’s The Duster Coat: An Icon of American Women’s Fashion

Feb 26, 2021

On February 19, 2021, at 1:00 pm ET, the Decorative Arts Trust hosted a virtual dialogue featuring Rebecca Jumper Matheson, PhD Candidate at Bard Graduate Center, who presented a lecture titled “The Duster Coat: An Icon of American Women’s Fashion,“ and was joined in conversation with Michele Majer, Assistant Professor at Bard Graduate Center.

Rebecca began her lecture by providing history of the duster in America. Many may mistakenly assume that the duster emerged in response to automotive travel. That is not the case. The duster had been a travel staple since the 1860s. Rebecca notes, “the 20th century motoring duster evolved from 19th century styles.”

So why did women begin to wear duster coats? Rebecca explains throughout her lecture how and why the duster was critical in creating a protective barrier from travel. She states:

“Coupled with the luxurious sleeping cars offered by Pullman since about 1865, expanding railroad lines made it possible for more Americans than ever to travel long distances speedily and safely. Women enjoyed greater freedom of movement, yet long distance train journeys also brought new challenges for women who needed to communicate an image of attractiveness, respectability, and modesty within the liminal spaces of the pullman car. “ 

Thus emerged the duster coat, a necessary accessory to engage with a new form of travel. Rebecca’s lecture takes on a both macro and micro study of the duster coat. By sharing stories discovered in primary source documents, Rebecca tells the story of the duster coat in a way that is intimate and expansive.  

After her presentation, Michele Majer joined Rebecca in conversation. Building on the presentation, Michele asked about the separation of social classes on trains, the use of intimate photographs in publications, the duster coat going out of fashion, and much more. 

To hear more about the duster coat, watch a full recording of the virtual dialogue:


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For updates on future virtual dialogues, visit our calendar of events, sign up for our e-newsletter, and follow us on Facebook and Instagram. The Trust is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that appreciates the support of members and donors who make programming like this possible.

About The Decorative Arts Trust Bulletin

Formerly known as the "blog,” the Bulletin features new research and scholarship, travelogues, book reviews, and museum and gallery exhibitions. The Bulletin complements The Magazine of the Decorative Arts Trust, our biannual members publication.


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