When I began my project on historical costumes at the Rye Historical Society, I never expected to find a rare piece of costume history tucked amongst the rows of vintage garments.
By Heather Schindler
When I began my project on historical costumes at the Rye Historical Society, I never expected to find a rare piece of costume history tucked amongst the rows of vintage garments. Pulling a two-piece lavender gown off the rack, Education Director Jennifer Plick and I determined that it was an evening dress from the 1890s. Then came the big discovery when we saw the label: Charles Worth. We looked at each other and thought: it can’t be! Sure enough, though, we compared the label to samples online, and it was the real thing.
Why all the fuss, you might ask? Well, to put it in perspective, most Worth fashions end up in the collection of The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Charles Worth, born in 1825, was a British designer, who moved to Paris and started his own couture house in 1857. This was during the Gilded Age (as we call it in America), when society ladies from all continents traveled to Paris for the latest fashions and dresses were made by hand. House of Worth became known for its use of sumptuous fabrics with gorgeous hand-embroidery, and was soon worn exclusively by the wealthiest and most prominent women of the day. Indeed, the dress found in the Square House Collection displays many of Worth’s signature touches, in this case, beautiful silk in a variety of shades of purple with masterful embroidery that almost looks painted on.
Though Worth became famous for the beauty and style of his clothes, he was a superb businessman and was the first to put on runway shows to display his designs, earning him the nickname “the father of haute couture.”
Rye Historical Society records show that the Worth dress was donated in 1972 by a Mrs. Edward L. Richards of Stuyvesant Avenue, along with more than ten other garments, two of which I was able to review more closely. The two tea dresses reveal features of both Victorian and Edwardian time periods, dating them around the turn of the last century.
Their Victorian characteristics include “leg o’ mutton” puffed sleeves, and a “Watteau back,” a long pleat in the rear that harkens back to gowns worn during the 18th-century career of Antoine Watteau, the famed Rococo painter.
Their Edwardian attributes —light colors, sheer fabrics, and frothy details — represent the lighter mood of La Belle Époque and show influences of the Art Nouveau movement. These would have been considered progressive for that era because they were made of a looser, lighter fabric and were not meant to be worn with a corset, as was the more formal Worth dress.
The dresses are fascinating for both their beauty and the history behind them, and will soon be up on the Rye Historical Society’s website, www.ryehistory.org, along with other notable gowns for everyone to see.
The author is a volunteer at the Rye Historical Society and a senior at Rye High School.