The history of fashion teaches us that the lives of women and their roles in society were radically revolutionized by key changes in their wardrobes. Innovative styles arrived when rigid corsets were replaced by looser clothes, but the latter also had a symbolical power as they introduced new ideas of freedom. Some of these changes and revolutions are so well-known in the history of fashion that it may be tricky to show them in a fashion exhibition in intriguing ways.
Yet the Summer exhibition at Lyndhurst - a mansion built in 1838 that overlooks the Hudson River in Tarrytown, New York, and that is considered by many to be the most important American home of the 19th century - does so by focusing on three remarkable women, introducing in this way not just their wardrobes, but their lifestyles and achievements.
"Defying Labels: New Roles, New Clothes" covers a specific historical period of time, from 1880 to 1940, as reflected in the wardrobes of three women - philanthropist Helen Gould, Anna Gould, Duchess of Talleyrand, and former actress Edith Kingdon Gould, the daughters and daughter-in-law of railroad baron Jay Gould.
Though among the wealthiest women of the Gilded Age, Jay Gould's daughters were raised to think independently and didn't adhere to the strict codes of New York's upper echelon. Gould was one of the most infamous financiers of the 19th century, but he was self-made and was generally not received in polite society.
Though the exhibition - featuring approximately 30 ensembles displayed throughout the mansion and in Lyndhurst's Carriage House Exhibition Gallery - has a strong focus on daywear and chronicles important shifts such as the adoption of men's tailoring in women's clothes and the growth of travel wear and sportswear, it includes a few evening pieces and unique luxury accessories as well.
Among the highlights there are designs by the most popular European couturiers, in particular Redfern, and American seamstresses of the day, such as A.L. White, M.A. Connelly, also known as the "Irish sensation", and her protégé Mrs. M.A. DeLaney.
Redfern is rarely exhibited in the United States, but it looks like Anna Gould may have patronized the designer extensively since his gowns were owned by both Helen and Edith, so Anna probably influenced them both, bringing Redfern to their attention.
Personal effects featured also include Helen Gould's Near Eastern travel tent and period athletic gear, and Anna's French furniture and Louis Vuitton lingerie trunk, while Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels have both lent precious objects from their collections which were purchased by Anna Gould in Paris.
Many of the garments in the exhibition have never been exhibited or have not been seen before in the United States; most pieces included are selected from Lyndhurst's own extensive collection of clothing, but there are also garments lent or donated by Gould family descendants and loans from a number of major museum and corporate collections such as the Cornell Costume Collection, the FIDM Museum and Galleries at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, and Palais Galliera, just to mention a few ones.
"With the considerable societal changes during the Gilded Age, women moved outside of their traditional roles in the home. The corsets and 18 inch waistlines that had imprisoned them during much of the 19th century no longer functioned in a world where women were workers, organizers and public leaders," explains Howard Zar, Executive Director at Lyndhurst, in a press release.
"Women adopted more comfortable tailoring and curated their closets to fit the many new roles they were required to play. By World War II, much of the modern design vocabulary was set. As a result, many of the exhibited garments display a surprisingly contemporary sensibility even though some are 100 years old."
You can easily spot this modern sensibility mentioned by Mr Zar even in an elegant reception dress from 1912-1914 that was made for Helen and that seems to embody her passion for a muted elegance.
Jay Gould's eldest daughter, studied law at New York University, she championed women's economic equality, helped finance the Spanish-American War and married for love in her forties, becoming a philanthropist.
While still living with her parents, Helen Gould's wardrobe adhered to the appropriate standards of the period: the earliest dress in the exhibition is an elaborate purple silk day ensemble of Helen's by American seamstress M.A.Connelly which displays the voluminous construction and elaborate floral decoration of the 1880s.
As the years passed and her role changed, Helen's wardrobe started reflecting her roles as the executor of her father's estate, a single business woman, sports enthusiast and role model to her nieces. Helen developed therefore a passion for tailored clothing (she favoured English tailoring), flattering silhouettes, restrained decorations and a neutral palette of black or white.
The section dedicated to Helen also features a Redfern day dress from 1905 combining English tailoring with cream colored lace and her wedding dress made by A.L. White of New York, with a faux pearl plastron in the shape of a butterfly on the bodice.
Edith Kingdon Gould, Helen's sister-in-law, was almost her complete opposite. A stage performer, Edith symbolized social change since in her time, actresses started being acknowledged by high society.
She married Jay Gould's eldest son George, and her sense of fashion was a combination of former actress and ingénue. Her wardrobe contributed to help her building and consolidating her social reputation, securing her the friendship of the best families who ruled New York's society.
Edith opted for traditional clothes compared to Helen: she immediately understood a woman could be empowered by exclusive designs by the best couturiers around and often opted for gowns by the House of Worth. Its silhouettes, draped motifs and dramatic colour palette perfectly matched with Gould's voluptuous figure.
The exhibition features for example a 1898 red velvet Worth evening gown with an S-curve silhouette displayed with a copy of the portrait in which it was worn. Gould never forgot her background, though, and often opted for a touch of theatricality as proved by a Redfern fancy dress with square neckline and elaborate gold trim that calls to mind an Elizabethan costume.
Anna is the youngest and probably most independent of the three women, in the exhibition she represents a modern woman dressing to please herself. She inherited from her father a healthy indifference to the opinions of others and refused to give up her passion for a fashionable lifestyle even after her divorce or when she turned older.
Anna married two French aristocrats, gaining her titles through her weddings, but she was a reluctant aristocrat, more independent than many other aristocratic wives. Having married in the United States, she retained option for divorce and kept her fortune and properties when she separated from her first husband, Count Boni de Castellane.
Though she may not have liked the rigid rules of the French aristocracy, Anna enjoyed the clothing, jewelry and luxury goods Paris offered. When she returned to the United States at age 64 after the death of her second husband (the Duke of Talleyrand), shortly before the Nazi invaded Paris, she brought back her passion for the French lifestyle.
Gould purchased in wartime America versions of the gowns she had bought in Paris, opting for fashion and youthful styles: visitors will be suprised to discover that some of the ensembles such as a peach dress with cascades of flowers weren't part of Anna's wardrobe as a young woman, but she wore them when she was in her sixties or her seventies.
Many of the dresses in this section at the Lyndhurst exhibition come from Maison Burano, a Fifth Avenue retailer and importer who supplied apparel to mature women who wanted to remain fashionable.
Through Anna's wardrobe visitors will be able to follow the evolution of fashion from 1900 through 1940 and study the Empire revival dresses of Redfern and the demure elegance of Chanel.
The exhibition will also reunite for the first time Anna Gould's Paris and post-Paris wardrobes.
Some of the garments on display at Lyndhurst were lent by Palais Galliera and show how Anna favoured some of the key sport clothes designers of the aristocratic set (as proved by a side saddle riding design by the English maker Busvine).
The Palais Galliera also lent an Orientalist flapper dress by Agnès, one of Anna's preferred couturiers during the roaring '20s, but there are wonderful details to catch in many garments from Lyndhurst's own collection, such as a chic black dress by Jérôme, another lesser known couturier patronized by Anna, who was also into luxury accessories produced by jewelers.
The Cartier archives lent an exquisite enameled desk clock in the Louis XVI style as well as a 1920s compact set with lapis and turquoise, the pieces are complemented by a Cartier handbag from Lyndhurst's collection.
Van Cleef and Arpels lent instead a black satin evening bag with beatiful jade drops from the 1920s that further highlights Anna Gould's style during the roaring 20s.
"Defying Labels: New Roles, New Clothes" will therefore give the chance to fashion fans to admire a wide range of garments and accessories, while design students should instead try and look at the embroideries, details and patterns of some of the pieces on display as these elements may provide them with great inspirations, though you can bet that the best thing about this Lyndhurst exhibition will be the way it looks at three very different women with remarkable personalities through their unique wardrobes and fashion taste.
"Defying Labels: New Roles, New Clothes" June 17 through September 25, 2016, Lyndhurst, 635 South Broadway, Tarrytown, NY 10591, USA.
Image credits for this post
All images courtesy Lyndhurst
1. Reception dress, American, circa 1912-1914. Made for Helen Gould. This dress reflects the influence of Paul Poiret on the loosening of silhouettes for women.
2 and 3. Babani flapper dress in embroidered velevet, circa 1925, reflecting the Orientalist influence that was significant in many of the pieces Anna Gould purchased during this period.
4. Enameled desk clock in the Louis XVI style by Cartier.
5. Compact, Cartier, Paris, circa 1929, gold set with lapis and turquoise made for Anna Gould and showing the influence of the discovery of King Tut's tomb on Art Deco design.
6. Helen Gould, 1910.
7. Dress by A.L. White, New York, 1913, made for Helen Gould's wedding at age 43. This includes a one piece French lace veil, a gift from her sister Anna Gould, Duchess of Talleyrand.
8. Helen and Anna in 1878.
9. Portrait of Edith Kingdon Gould by society painter Chartran who also painted President and Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt.
10. Evening gown by Worth, Paris, circa 1898. This is the dress in which Edith Kingdon Gould had her portrait painted. The dress accentuates her legendary figure.
11. Anna Gould in 1895.
12, 13. Maison Burano, New York, late 1940s/1950s. With a matching hair comb and purse, Anna Gould would have been wearing this dress at approximately age 75.
14. Handbag for Anna Gould in the Lyndhurst collection. Maker unknown.
15. Evening bag, Van Cleef and Arpels, Paris, circa 1920, Embellished with diamonds and green jade on black and gold satin. Made for Anna Gould, Duchess of Talleyrand while living in Paris.
16, 17. Dress by Jérôme, Paris, circa 1931-32, for Anna Gould. Jérôme is not well-known today, but was one of Anna Gould's preferred couturiers. This was probably a favourite dress that she brought with her to the United States.
18. Maison Burano, New York, circa 1940, showing the extensive influence of Chanel handwork on American manufacturers of the time. The neckline involves hand-cut appliqués of the dress fabric onto netting.
19. Maker unknown, possibly Jérôme, Paris, circa 1935-39. An incredibly fine silk chiffon of the type preferred by Anna Gould; she would have been wearing this age 60-64.
20. Sling back, open toe shoes, circa 1940, Delman, New York. Anna was quite adventurous in her choice of shoes and hats.
21. Photograph of Anna Gould, Duchess of Talleyrand, and her Pekinese returning to the US in 1939 in advance of the Nazi invasion of Europe.
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