Wealthy women who spent thousands of dollars on French gowns maximized their investment by repurposing them—wearing them on multiple occasions over the course of several seasons or years, not unlike their most valuable pieces of jewelry. They either wore a gown in its original form, re-accessorized it, or hired the original maker or a local dressmaker to rework it. The practices reflect the value placed on the textiles and were well ensconced in European royal culture. Alexandra, Princess of Wales, had her British-made wedding gown converted by her dressmaker, Madame Elise and Co., into an evening dress only a few days after her marriage in March 1863 to the man later crowned Edward VII.
Upper-class US women had adopted the royal precedent for repurposing garments early in the nineteenth century. When Elizabeth Patterson of Baltimore married Jérôme Bonaparte in 1803, she wore an embroidered white muslin dress that she subsequently wore on multiple occasions. Caroline Astor also reworked gowns. A velvet gown in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in its current state believed to date to the 1890s, has been significantly redone (Fig. 3). The original form may date to the 1870s and possibly could be the dress that Astor wore to a fancy ball in 1875 (Fig. 4). Astor also rewore dresses to the extent that specific ones were understood to be her favorites, like her dinner gown of dark blue satin with gold embroidery, sometimes paired with a blue and gold hat.
For her portrait by Charles E. Drake, Frances Katherine Drexel Paul wore a wine-colored velvet dress by Melanie Pascaud, who was located at 157 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris (Figs. 1, 2). She removed the long-sleeved, lace-trimmed bodice and replaced it with an evening bodice that she had made by Mrs. Jacobs of 20 North 19th Street in Philadelphia.
Many elite gowns became heirlooms, written into wills, with the inheritors then choosing how they would wear them, with or without alterations. In her memoir, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont recalled how strongly she and her siblings valued a camelhair shawl and the lace flounces from their mother’s wedding outfit that were left to them in her will. Both Alva and her daughter, Consuelo, later used the lace on their own wedding dresses. Similarly, a dark blue velvet ensemble with chinchilla fur trim bearing the label of maison Lipman was purchased by philanthropist Caroline Louisa Williams French of Boston, Massachusetts, in 1883 for 1,600 francs (Fig. 5). The maison, run by Madame Camille Lipman, operated locations in the 1880s alternately at 7 rue Drouot and 2 rue de la Paix, and counted among its clients queen consort Maria Pia of Portugal. Some thirty-seven years later, French’s descendant, Alice Williams Pearse, wore the gown and chinchilla muff, without the coat, as seen in a photograph taken at an event to celebrate the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted voting rights to women (Fig. 6).
The string of donations by Orme Wilson Jr. and Richard Thornton Wilson III of gowns by the Houses of Worth, Doucet, and Paquin to the Metropolitan Museum of Art further provides a sense of how couture garments passed through the branches of one family (Figs. 3, 8, 10). The Wilson brothers were sons of William Backhouse Astor and Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor’s daughter Caroline “Carrie” Schermerhorn Astor, and their aunt was Mary Rita Wilson Goelet, who widely patronized Parisian couturiers.
Another outlet for reuse came via castoffs from owners to their maids or to charity recipients. Caroline Astor donated dresses to a women’s hospital, and Cornelia Stewart, who was married to retailer A. T. Stewart, reputedly passed some of hers to a singer in need of stage wear. The practice was an outgrowth of the European convention of royalty handing down their finery to their ladies-in-waiting, as did Queen Victoria and Alexandra, Princess of Wales.
Yet another stream was to sell gowns to secondhand dealers, descendants of the long-established European trade in old clothing. In Paris, the trade had been in existence since the thirteenth century, and by the eighteenth century, it was centered in the Les Halles neighborhood. In the nineteenth century, there were dress agents to whom royals would sell. Since the early eighteenth century, England also had a history of selling royal and aristocratic clothes in the Old Clothes Exchange in East London. George IV’s wardrobe was made available for public sale in 1831, at which time Madame Tussaud’s bought his coronation robe.
In New York, large populations of European immigrants who arrived between 1880 and 1920 fueled a robust secondhand trade on the Lower East Side, run mostly by Jews who had experience with peddling and tailoring. Some advertised in local newspapers offering to buy castoff garments. The advertising may have been necessary because the peddlers appear periodically to have been banned from buying garments at charity rummage sales. Anti-Semitism was in action here, as Jews historically were seen as dominating the trade, which they had come into out of necessity when they had been outlawed from participating in professions and instead took to itinerant, pushcart sales.
Actresses became creative in how they obtained and disposed of their costly costumes. When Emma Abbott died in 1891, fellow actress Jennie Kimball bought the gowns by Worth and the maison Félix that Abbott had worn in Carmen several years earlier. Kimball purchased them for her daughter Corinne, a rising star on the stage. And when Elena of Montenegro could not make use of several new Félix gowns due to a period of mourning for the assassinated King Umberto I of Italy, the couturier first placed them on view at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900. While visiting the exhibition, Francesca Redding admired the green silk and chiffon gown with winding leaf pattern, bought it, and promptly wore it on stage.
The buyers at secondhand stores were middle-class women who were capable of making clothes last for several years. Hannah Ditzler Alspaugh of Illinois recorded in her diary and in an extant scrapbook of fabric the dresses and suits that she would remake, or “rip,” over the years, including one suit that she wore for several visits to the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, an event that, notably, was held during a nationwide financial panic in 1893. With careful planning and maintenance, garments could be preserved and worn with frequency. Multiple layers of undergarments served as a barrier between bodily oils and dirt and the main part of the dress, although rain, mud, moths, and mold caused further concerns.
A new, pristine couture dress held the most value, and theft was rampant. Some thieves sought to resell the ill-gotten dresses in the secondhand market. Others were dressmakers whose aim was to copy the styles and techniques for their own businesses. Edith Kingdon Gould, an actress who married the financier George Jay Gould (eldest son of the railroad baron Jay Gould) in 1886, encountered incidents of theft over the course of her years in high society. She patronized Parisian couturiers and local dressmakers in New York. In January 1893 some of her dresses, worth up to $2,500 each, were stolen from dressmaker Phebe A. Smith’s shop.
Part of what made society women like Gould so vulnerable to theft was that their couture purchases were reported on thoroughly in the press. Their trips to Paris and their return voyages to the States were public knowledge, and along with the news of ship arrivals came details of their purchases. In August 1895, Life magazine wrote that Astor owned a new lace dress valued at $28,000, and socialite Theresa Alice Fair Oelrichs’s wedding gown, once worth $10,000, appreciated in value to more than $50,000. Coverage of society events also regularly detailed the guests’ gowns and jewelry. In Washington, DC, beginning in 1882, Frank (“Carp”) Carpenter reported on society events for the Cleveland Leader, the readership of which was keen to hear how midwestern transplants were faring in the capital. In fall 1888, one of their own, Benjamin Harrison, was elected president. Carp recalled that First Lady Caroline Scott Harrison dressed “in quiet taste” and preferred that her clothing was made in Washington, DC, or New York rather than at Worth. Her inauguration dress was US-made, but a number of the guests wore “Paris dresses,” delineated down to the last pink ostrich feather and princess pearl ornament in the Washington Post. Carp reveled in it: “We are lavishing fortunes on clothes. There is enough silk worn here every winter to carpet a whole state; there are pearls by the bushel, and diamonds by the peck.”
If a thief wanted details of exactly which items of jewelry were available at the home of Jane Lathrop Stanford in Washington, DC, they would need only to obtain a copy of Cosmopolitan magazine of October 1889 for an itemized list. Her jewels were ranked in the top three US collections, with Caroline Astor and Marie Louise Hungerford Mackay, and their values commented on in papers in France and as far west as San Francisco. The previous year, the lavish gifts presented to Mary Crowninshield Endicott on her marriage to British politician Joseph Chamberlain in Washington, DC, were eminently newsworthy. The bride’s New England blueblood grandparents gave a “bank check for a large amount,” and other family members presented a diamond and sapphire necklace and bracelets, and a diamond crescent. Finally, itemized lists of property willed to descendants were publicized when wealthy people passed away. Two years after Edith Kingdon Gould died, the New York Times printed the appraisal of her property—home furnishings, jewelry, clothing (including a monkey fur cape valued at $100, and a sable stole at $2,200).
The practice of smuggling by customers to avoid paying duties was fairly consistent throughout the latter part of the century, and it was also prevalent among dressmakers and retailers. Smuggling, or at least the reporting of it, seems to have peaked during the first years of each new tariff. In 1892, after the first full year of the McKinley Tariff, officials at the United States Custom House in New York explained that they caught more women smuggling goods than men. They had honed their skills for detecting women who claimed to have purchased gowns for their own use but in reality were bringing in samples to copy in their shops. They would measure the width of the gown against the woman’s waist, often finding that they did not match.
Theft and smuggling contributed to the widespread availability of counterfeit copies of original patterns. In 1868, Charles Frederick Worth and others founded the Chambre syndicale de la confection et de la couture pour dames et fillettes, one of the purposes of which was to advocate against illegal copying. But piracy of fashion designs in France was difficult to prosecute. The French law of July 19–24, 1793, which ended sumptuary laws, stipulated that property rights in some cases could be applied to couturiers, but it was not until the 1902 law on artistic and literary property that couture design was securely protected.
On the whole, however, France made greater attempts to protect its economically critical fashion industry than did the United States, but the international nature of the industry proved challenging. Prosecution of counterfeiters in foreign countries was prohibitively difficult. In the United States, copyright laws often interpreted clothing as a utilitarian item, not art, and did not provide protection. Certain couture houses, becoming aware of illegal copying in the United States and unable to stop it, eventually embraced the opportunity to claim a piece of the secondary market. Worth began sewing in labels in the mid-1860s (Fig. 7), but faced continuous troubles with copyists and brand infringement, including the London corset maker who ran her business under the name Madame Worth and whom the Parisian Worths successfully sued. In the late 1880s, fake labels began appearing in garments. To preserve its business, Worth began selling models that could be legally copied by department and dry goods stores, hence allowing the local makers to avoid import duties. Worth also sold designs to middle-class magazines like Godey’s, which in turn made them available to readers to make at home.
Some firms sent spies to France to sketch the latest styles they observed in the couturiers’ salons, at the theater, and at the races at Longchamps. Designs were also leaked by employees. F lix began sewing in labels about 1885, and garments with the Félix name appeared at B. Altman’s, Bloomingdale Brothers, Mandel Brothers, and James McCreery and Company, among other US retailers, from at least 1889. The goods were presumably made expressly for the US trade or legally licensed.
By 1913, however, US retailers could order packs of “A. Félix Breveté” labels from wholesalers, and there was concern within the industry about false representation of French brand names. There were also hybrid garments: a US dressmaker would buy a French garment but then partially alter it with cheaper materials that did not need to be imported, as did one dressmaker in Detroit in 1891 with a F lix design.
By 1896, Félix, Doucet, Laferriére, and other firms were making models in multiples for the US trade (Fig. 11). In a 1900 interview, maison Félix owner Émile Martin Poussineau acknowledged that he had business relations with US retailers but conveyed his dismay at hearing about unlicensed designs:
Quite recently one of my American clients told me that she had been shown a number of model dresses bearing my name at a New York establishment with whom I have never had any direct or indirect dealings. When this kind of thing occurs I am doubly injured, for the garments attributed to me are very often of very inferior cut and make. The same thing applies to hats.
The emphasis here is to acknowledge the traditional focus on couture houses’ concerns about authenticity but, in equal measure, to show that US consumer desire put pressure on the French providers, ultimately forcing them to change their business practices and supply licensed goods.
Consumer ingenuity in creating multiple channels (both legal and illicit) for obtaining desired goods and then reusing, circulating, and exchanging them helps explain the wide dissemination of French couture in collections around the world. As fashion historian Kate Strasdin points out, Queen Alexandra’s gowns were auctioned by the American Art Association and Anderson Art Galleries in 1937, where Irene Lewisohn purchased a quarter of them and made them part of the foundational collection of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This article is excerpted and adapted from Dressing Up: The Women Who Influenced French Fashion by Elizabeth L. Block. All notes and references are available in the book, published in 2021 by MIT Press. Dressing Up is the winner of the Aileen Ribeiro Grant of the Association of Dress Historians, an Association for Art History grant, and a Pasold Research Fund grant.
ELIZABETH L. BLOCK is an art historian and senior editor in the publications and editorial department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.