The Chicago History Museum has over fifty gowns from the House of Worth in its collection, dating from the early 1860s to the 1940s. While working as curatorial assistant in the costume collection I undertook to study and document as many of these dresses as I could. Here is one of the earliest, a bright green day dress from the mid 1860s.
Note about the pictures: These were taken on my iPhone while the dress was laid out on a table in one of the museum’s costume storage areas. The lighting was less than ideal so I apologize for the color fluctuations in the photos. I have noted which photos come closest to showing the true color of the dress.
This day dress came to the CHM collection as a gift from the Art Institute of Chicago. According to the catalog notes, it was made by Worth for a woman named Mrs. Cobb, the mother of Mrs. William B. Walker. The catalog does not note who either of these women are, but I surmise that Mrs. William B. Walker was the original donor of the dress. The dress was accessioned into the CHM collection in 1960, but I have no information on when it was originally donated to the AIC.
The label for this dress is missing (at the moment it is unknown when and why the label was removed), meaning there is no concrete evidence that this dress was definitely produced by Charles Frederick Worth. It was attributed to Worth by its original donor. Because the dress was not originally donated to the CHM collection, the museum does not have any of the original correspondence between the donor and the Art Institute, which may have given more information about both the wearer of the dress and the attribution as a Worth piece. Without doing detailed research about Mrs. Cobb and looking into the House of Worth’s archives I cannot say with 100% certainty that this dress is by Worth. However, the design and impeccable craftsmanship all speak to Worth’s oeuvre, and the construction techniques are similar to other Worth gowns in the CHM collection. Taking those factors into account, as well as the attribution given by the donor, I can say that the attribution is probably correct and this dress was most likely produced by Charles Frederick Worth.
The catalog notes for this dress list the color as “Metternich green”, a reference to Pauline Metternich (1836-1921), wife of the Austrian Ambassador to the court of Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie. By all accounts, Pauline Metternich was a close friend of Empress Eugenie and a vivacious character. While she was a style icon, she was not beautiful and referred to herself as “la singe a la mode” (the fashionable monkey). In her memoirs, My Years in Paris, she credits herself with introducing Worth to the French court and launching his career in Paris. I plan on doing more research on Pauline Metternich in the future, and hope to learn more about why this color is associated with her.
This dress shows the transitional style of the second half of the 1860s, where circular hoops were transitioning into the elliptical hoops which would characterize the first bustle period of the 1870s. In the early part of the 1860s, skirts were rounder and closer to the bell shape of the late 1850s. As the decade progressed, the fullness of the skirt began moving towards the back, creating a flatter front and an overall elliptical shape. This would eventually transform into the full bustles of the 1870s.
The skirt of this dress features a section of cartridge pleats in the center back, while the center front and side portions are unpleated, attesting to the emphasis placed in the back of the skirt. When dressed on a mannequin, the skirt of this dress has a flat front and the overall shape shows a clear emphasis on the back. Had this dress been constructed earlier in the decade, the pleated section of the skirt would have continued around the entirety or at least most of the waistband, adding volume and creating a skirt with a more evenly round shape.
The design of the trim, with the pleated ribbon in strong, repeating lines and the addition of the fringe, shows a strong military influence. Using military uniforms as inspiration was not only a popular theme in women’s fashion but a timely one in the case of this dress—the American Civil War was fought from 1861 to 1865. This dress, made in 1866-67, was created with the memories and realities of the war fresh in the mind of the wearer. While it is pure conjecture to hypothesize any connection between the design of the dress the American Civil War, it is worth noting the proximity of the two events.
The entire dress is hand-sewn.
The bodice is made of bright green silk faille, trimmed with green silk satin and silk fringe. It’s lined with plain white silk. The front opening has an uneven, zig-zag shaped edge. The bodice closes with a line of hooks and eyes down the center front, with additional hooks attached to the triangular points of the opening which overlap the center front, to secure the edges. The bottom of the bodice extends into wide tabs. There is a dart on each side of the center opening.
The interior of the bodice is flat-lined with plain white silk. All of the seams are stitched closed on the edges and pressed outwards, except for the two side seams which are pressed open and their edges stitched to the lining. On top of the open seams are 5 1/8” long bone casings. The boning is probably whalebone. Along the interior of the collar is a small ruffle of thin silk chiffon.
The exterior of the bodice is decorated with elaborately pleated silk satin trim and silk fringe. The trimming decorates the opening of the bodice, the shoulder seams, and the sleeve cuffs. Along the interior of the sleeve cuffs is short, white, silk fringe.
Neckline - 14¼”
Waistline above tabs - 23”
Sleeve outer seam - 20”
Sleeve inner seam - 16”
Center back (below collar) - 16” long
Center front - 15¼” long
Trim at widest point - 1”
Collar - ½” wide
Tabs - 2” long
Interior side back bone casing- 5 1/8” long
Dart at bodice front- 7½” long
Fringe- About 4½” long
The skirt is made of the same silk faille as the bodice, and decorated with pleated silk satin trim and silk fringe in a similar pattern to the bodice. The skirt is constructed of nine triangular-shaped panels, the bottom of the center front panel measuring 24½ inches wide. Along one side seam is a small pocket.
The skirt closes at center back with a single hook and eye. The waistband is lined with white muslin. On each side of the back opening there are 3 inches of cartridge pleats, providing fullness to the back. The rest of the skirt is simply folded over at the top edge and stitched to the waistband.
The skirt is unlined at the top and the seams are pressed closed. It is interesting to note that, unlike the seams on the bodice, the seams of the skirt are unfinished. The bottom third of the skirt is lined with stiff black linen or muslin. The very bottom edge of the skirt has a green braided cord stitched on.
Waist - 22¾”
Waistband - 1” wide
Hem - 2 3/8” long
Bottom lining - 14¾” long
Center front - 41¼” long
Center back - 63” long
Skirt bottom circumference - About 187¼”
Skirt is constructed from nine panels, bottom of center front panel is 24½” wide
Back opening - 13” long
Trim - 1 7/8” at widest point
Pocket opening - 6” long
On each side of the back opening there are 3” of cartridge pleats
Length of trimmed area - 33 6/8”
The belt is made of the same green silk faille as the bodice and skirt. The tails of the bow, which forms the main decoration, are lined with plain green silk. The belt attaches around the waist with a single hook and eye, with an additional three hooks and eyes along the center of the bow to attach the bow to the skirt. The waistband is lined with a white ribbon with a zig-zag patterned weave.
The main feature of the belt is a large bow with long tails. The trim attached to the tails gives a sense of cascading folds of fabric. The cascading effect given by the trim is not merely decorative; the tails are made of multiple pieces of fabric lined with white cotton gauze.
Belt waistband - 12½” long and 1¾” wide
Bow - 10¼” across the top
Pleated trim - 7/8 to 1” wide
Long edge of tails - 24¾” long
Short edge of tails - 17” long
Tails top width - 3¼”
Tails middle width - 8¼”
Tails bottom width - 11¾”
From the top of the knot to the end of the fringe is 29½”
The trim has two main components, pleated silk satin ribbon and silk fringe. The pleated ribbon gives incredible depth and texture to the dress. The ribbon itself is made from a tube of thick silk satin. In preparation for writing this article I recreated this trim and would like to share my technique.
Two overlapping knife pleats are taken and secured in the center of the ribbon (A). As you can see in the illustration, the bottom pleat is labeled B, while the top is labeled C. The edges of the top pleat (C) are then folded out and upwards, revealing the underside of the pleat. The edges of the top pleat (C) are then secured in the center of the ribbon, creating a straight line between A and where the edges of C meet. The process is then repeated. The step-by-step process of my own recreation can be seen below:
Charles Frederick Worth died in 1895 but under the direction of his sons, Gaston-Lucien and Jean-Philippe, his design house continued to flourish. Jean-Philippe has been noted as continuing on with his father’s lavish aesthetic and many consider him as talented as his father, if not more so. A spectacular gown by this second generation of Worths will be analyzed in the next post in this series.
We would like to especially thank the Chicago History Museum for their permission to publish photos of this beautiful gown.