Unveiled: Wedding Dress of the Week

Many apologies for the lateness of this post. It was programmed to be published last Friday as I was fittingly in Dunedin for a wedding, but autopublish failed me!

This week’s wedding dress provides the inspiration for Maureen Montgomery’s forthcoming Te Papa lecture on The World of Charles Frederick Worth – Pioneer of Haute Couture.  (Sunday 12 February, 2012, 2-3pm Soundings Theatre).

Maureen is an Associate Professor at Canterbury University and the author of Gilded Prostitution: Status, Money and Transatlantic Marriages 1870-1920 (think Downton Abbey!) and Displaying Women: Spectacles of Leisure in Edith Wharton’s New York.

Cover of Displaying Women by Maureen Montgomery. Published 1998.

Her lecture is presented in conjunction with the exhibition Unveiled: 200 Years of Wedding Fashion from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Wedding dress designed by Charles Frederick Worth for Clara Mathews, 1879. Collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Given by Mrs G.T. Morton. ©Victoria and Albert Museum / V&A Images

The wedding dress in question was designed by Charles Frederick Worth (1825-1895) for Clara Mathews who married Colonel Hugh Stafford in 1880 and is in the V&A’s collection.

Worth, who was born in the small market town in Lincolnshire, England in 1825, is credited with founding the French haute couture industry, and most importantly ‘raising the status of dress making from an anonymous trade to artistic endeavour’.

‘His superior skills, business acumen and cultivated air of exclusivity afforded him a status hitherto unseen in the fashion industry’. (Mairi Mackenzie)

Within the chronology of Unveiled, Clara Mathews’ dress is the first by an identified designer. Prior to Worth, dressmakers occupied a  lowly status within the fashion and textile industry. The cost of a dress lay not in the making, but in the fabric and trimmings. Worth, who aspired to make clothes that were ’the most expensive in the world’, created an air of exclusivity around his work and through force of personality and sheer talent,  cultivated a highly influential clientele, the most important of whom was the Empress Eugenie.

A fashion icon of her generation, details of the empress’ gowns were reported in newspapers around the world. Titled and wealthy women from Paris to London to New York clamoured to wear his designs, and in comparison to the poorly paid dressmakers before him, they paid between 1,600 and 120,000 francs for the privilege. He was particularly popular among American heiresses, who travelled to Europe in increasing numbers following the end of the Civil War. At Worth they purchased their trousseau along with gowns and status. In the 1860s Worth began to export gowns to the US. The significance of Worth to Americans is immortalised in the novels of Henry James and Edith Wharton.

Clara Mathews was not amongst the most famous of Worth’s American born clients, but has an interesting story.  She was the illegitimate daughter of another man synonymous with the advancement of the dress making – Isaac Merritt Singer, founder of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. In his private life, Singer was a bit of a Lothario. By 1860, he had fathered a grand total of eighteen children by four different women amidst accusations of bigamy. There was Catherine, followed by the three Mary’s - Mary Ann, Mary McGonical and Mary Eastwood Walters. By the end of his life, he is said to have fathered 24 children.

Clara Matthews was the daughter Mary McGonical, who bore Singer five children. The Singer-McGonical offspring used the surname Mathews. Clara was  about 25 when she wed her English Colonel. At the time, her corseted waist was a mere 57.5 cm in circumference.

Like last week’s wedding dress, Clara’s gown is an effective combination of austerity and luxury. The high-necked bodice, which is made from a cream silk satin and fastened with pearls, is chaste and verging on the severe in appearance.  Worth saved all his extravagant flourishes for the skirt, which has a flat front and sweep of drapery at the back. The skirt features net panels densely embroidered with faux pearls and satin stitch in a design of leaves, buds, three-dimensional flowers.  Faux pearls were the latest in fashionable trimmings.

Clara was not the only Singer family member to frequent the House of Worth. The evening dress below, also from the V&A’s collection, was worn by Mrs Granville Alexander, another of Singer’s daughters. The richly embroidered dress dates  from 1881. Both gowns were donated to the V&A by Mrs G.T Morton, Mrs Alexander’s great-niece.

Evening dress by Worth, 1881. Collection of the V&A, London. Given by Mrs G. T. Morton. ©Victoria and Albert Museum / V&A Images

For further information on Clara’s wedding dress listen to a  podcast by Edwina Ehrman, the curator of Unveiled. To see more images of Worth’s spectacular gowns visit the V&A and Metropolitan Museum of Art websites. If you are in Wellington on Sunday 12 February, we hope to see you at Maureen’s lecture.

‘Wedding Dress of the Week’ is posted in conjunction with the exhibition Unveiled: 200 years of the Wedding Fashion from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London which is on display at Te Papa until 22 April.

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