“For herself grandmother kept little, realizing with her unfailing good sense that haute couture was not for a farmer’s wife who made her own butter and went to chapel; although she was to be seen on occasions riding in the trap in a Vanderbilt blue cape with a storm collar lined with white fur.”
It’s hard for us nowadays to imagine just how grand the House of Worth really was. With its flagship atelier on the most intimidating street in Paris, the “father of haute couture” produced the best of the best in extravagant craftsmanship and design, with astronomical prices to match. Patronage from Empress Eugenie herself, plus the very elite of European and American society, cemented the House’s reputation at the very top of the sartorial tree.
But the myth went further than this. So extravagantly rich were some of its patrons that they only wore their impossibly lavish Worth gowns once or twice. Empress Eugenie is thought to have been seen in each sumptuous outfit only once, but she was not the only one.
Take the American Vanderbilts, for example. Their legendary fancy dress ball of 1883 saw all of New York’s elite society show up at their Fifth Avenue mega mansion dressed in various inventive ensembles, and crowds of celebrity spotters reportedly had to be held back by police. They were fabulously rich and famous…. and allegedly, also only wore their gowns once or twice.
What happened to these clothes after they were cast off by the hoi polloi? Piles of silks and furs must have been discarded. Did they keep them in vast walk-in wardrobes and pet them occasionally? Did they hand them on to their ladies’ maids? Sure, a few ended up in museums, but what happened to the rest?
By chance, I tracked down some of the Vanderbilts’ House of Worth purchases this week… and in the most appropriate, yet unlikely place. It seems that some of Worth’s work made it all the way back to the county of his birth – Lincolnshire, in the UK – under the most delightfully ridiculous circumstances!
The book referenced in the video is Hedingham Harvest by Geoffrey Robinson, and fortunately, the entire book is online – enjoy Chapter 6 for yourself here.