Friday, April 6, 2018

Aunt Mary’s Worth Dress

 Velvet gown with daytime bodice, Charles Frederick Worth (1825-1895), Gibson House Museum (1997.111).

There is a gem in the collection of nineteenth-century dress at the Gibson House Museum. It is a sumptuous purple velvet gown, richly colored and trimmed in velvet ribbon and silk fringe. A drape sweeps off the waist and gathers at the back in a dramatic bustle. The dress has two separate bodices: one for day wear (long-sleeved with a high collar) and one for evening wear, with a low, square neckline. The skirt is stiff from a horsehair lining, and metal stays are sewn directly into the bodice fabric.

Likely made in the early 1870s, the dress is a pitch-perfect example of Victorian fashion from that decade. The tightly corseted waist and prominent bustle create a much-desired silhouette, one that shows off a more “natural” form in comparison to the large hooped skirts of the 1860s. In dress, as in most other things, the Victorians preferred a high level of specificity, and the two bodices signify the expectation of different attire for day and evening.

Mary Crowninshield Warren Hammond (1841-1890), Gibson House Museum (1992.413.27)
Mary Warren Hammond, Rosamond Gibson’s older sister, was the proud owner of the dress. She was married to Samuel Hammond IV, Charles Gibson Sr.’s cousin, and they lived across the street at 116 Beacon Street. In photographs from the 1870s and 1880s, Mary looks elegant and confident, someone to notice. She was clearly a fashionable lady, and it seems fitting that this beautiful gown belonged to her.

The dress was made by Parisian couturier Charles Frederick Worth. Born in England,  Worth moved to Paris in 1845 and found work at Maison Gagelin, a luxury textiles firm. By 1860, he had set himself up with his own dressmaking business and by 1870, he was the most sought-after designer in Paris. He was especially known for his use of luxurious fabrics and trimmings.

What explains Worth’s popularity? Part of his success was due to the patronage of Empress Eugénie; after seeing a Worth gown at court, she treated the House of Worth as her official dressmaker. Worth was also innovative in business. He used live models, rather than mannequins, to show off his designs to potential customers. Clients like Mary Hammond would visit his offices at 7 rue de la Paix and select from the clothing on view. Chosen items would then be tailor-made for the client. His popularity spread through fashion magazines, and many wealthy American women traveled to Paris to visit the House of Worth, where he put on fashion shows and created seasonal collections. Due to these innovations and to his immense popularity, Charles Worth is considered by many to be the father of haute couture, or high fashion.

Tucked into the Gibson House Worth dress box, a handwritten rectangular label reads, “Aunt Mary’s Worth Dress.” It’s the only item of clothing in the house that Charlie personally labeled, giving us an idea that he, too, understood its value and beauty.
Velvet gown with evening bodice, Charles Frederick Worth (1825-1895), Gibson House Museum (1997.111)

The Charles Worth gown will be on display at the Gibson House Museum May 30August 12, 2018. Visit the Gibson House Museum website to plan your visit, www.thegibsonhouse.org.

- Meghan Gelardi Holmes, Curator


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