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The study of costume in portraits provides us with a wealth of information about contemporary society and culture. The way one dresses is not only a matter of personal taste but an expression of the prevailing cultural mores. Actual garments that have survived sometimes bear little or no resemblance to those represented in portraits. The portraits have been embellished by the artist, sometimes at the request of the sitter, to achieve a certain effect.

As a reflection of the society in which they were produced, portraits often show us what people wore at a given time and what objects they considered important to represent their place in society. Through an examination of portraits in the collection of the New Britain Museum of American Art, the history of American costume will be explored, taking into consideration the intent of the artist and the desires of the patron. American costume was directly influenced by fashions in Europe, especially France and Great Britain. Even in the eighteenth century current fashion information could be quickly disseminated through fashion plates and magazines. American men and women quickly embraced the current trends, modifying the fashions to fit the lifestyle of an emerging nation. Women continued to adapt fashion to fit their unique needs. Never solely slaves to high style, American women continued to alter high fashion throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to meet their own particular demands.