Thursday, February 2, 2012

"Gown" With the Wind: Is This Alice's Wedding Dress?

On Saturday, March 10th (2012) I am giving a lecture about gilded-age costumes. I've got to be honest here: we were all more than a little inspired by the PBS series "Downton Abbey." Quite simply, it's gosh-darn beautiful.

So anyway, in preparation for the talk, I went prodding around in Clermont's own costume collections. The collection is not extensive, but does have a few sparkling gems, for instance, the 1905-1910 taupe silk gown pictured at left. It takes a little imagination when they are all boxed up, I know, but that design down the front is all hand-applied soutache and embroidery, and the silk is so lucious you just want to pet it and call it "my precious" (but I managed to restrain myself--curatorial training can be a real stick in the mud).

But one label caught my eye. "CL 1981.18 Wedding dress." Well that's odd, I thought. I knew where Honoria's wedding dress was, and this wasn't it. So out of curiousity, I cracked the box open, gently folded aside layers of acid-free tissue paper, and got a look at something truly lovely.

Here was a rick ivory silk satin gown with the empire waist that was starting to come back into fashion by the end of the first decade of the 20th century (as seen in the 1910 Jeanne Paquin fashion illustration from the Victoria & Albert Museum).

Clearly, this was someone's special gown--Alice's judging by the time period-- It had stellar details: applied Milan lace along the top of the bodice and shoulders is studded with hemotite and silver-colored beads along with pearls, the whole thing heavily structed, belying its somewhat airy appearance.

Time to check the accession files.

So when I dug into the big bank of filing cabinets, I found that someone else had already recognized the quality of this gown back in 1981 when it was originally accessioned. Good black and white photography had already been taken. Voila:

Once I got a look at these, I had a much better feeling for the dress as a whole: A-line, trained, and look--pearl tassels on the sleeves! I had just seen similar tassels in images at the Victoria & Albert (Jeanne paquin again at right, 1907).

And here was something else useful: an image of the label printed on the waist tape in the dress. "Rouff /18 Haussmann Paris."--Ooh! It's Parisian.

It only took a few minutes on the internet to find out that here was a gown from a major nineteenth and twentieth century French design house, on par with the House of Worth, and in fact the house where Jeanne Paquin (whose dresses I had just been ogling) had trained before opening her own competing house in 1891. The House of Rouff had been opened in 1884, and Rouff gowns are held in museums of great repuation around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Kyoto Cotume Institute.

Owning a French gown carried a certain cache, and if this was Alice's wedding gown, it would have indicated that they went all out. Parisian gowns were even reported upon in the New York Times during the era, and one reporter tried to sum up the question of why French fashion was so all-important in fiercly-independent New York, "To get just that Parisian twist, that supreme essence of chic, which, in spite of protest, you never obtain elsewhere."

The accession file included no information as to why the attribution that the dress was worn at Alice's wedding. Honoria confirmed that the dress belonged to her mother, but there were other occassions that it would have been possible to wear the gown.

It is possible, looking at the design, that it was made as early as 1906, the year that Alice married John Henry Livingston. If that were the case, this gown would have been on the cutting edge of fashion, as many American ladies were still wearing the pouchy bodices popular for the last five years (pictured at right). In fact, Alice herself was still wearing that style in the photgraphs taken during their two-year honeymoon.

If this was Alice's wedding dress, she must have felt like a princess during her wedding procession, headed towards the stately Livingston heir to Clermont, one of the Hudson Valley mansions most notable for its historic social prowess.

Sadly, reading the accession file confirmed another observation I'd made while peaking in at the gown: the silk is shattering (see what this process looks like in the gown at left). This extremely destructive and irreversible process is the fatal disease of silk.

It means that every time this gown handled, picked up, or shifted, the fibers will break down a little more. Even exposure to the light hastens the process. It means that this gown can never be exhibited because the process of getting it out (let alone leaving it in the leight for a week or two) would only hurry its innevitable demise.

It's items like this that make me glad I have an opportunity to share Clermont's collections with the vast internet community. A gown by a major French designer spent twenty years curled in Honoria's trunk in Sylvan cottage and is now locked in a new prison of acid-free tissue and cardboard. While it won't make an in-person appearance for the public any time in the future, at least it can be seen on the vast "interwebs" by other fashion-history-hungry folks.

**Was it really Alice's wedding dress?  View an update here.

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