My love of the Gilded Age, Industrial Revolution, and Belle Epoque time period, is something that if you know me, you probably hear far too much about! I am a huge Downton Abbey fan. Growing up in western North Carolina, the Biltmore Estate was a constant family field trip. We went countless Christmases to see the decorations and more times than I could remember when visitors and family came into town. The Vanderbilt's life and stories fascinated me. The Boldini painting hung on the staircase captured my imagination. It was a time period full of contradictions, full of extremes, full of juicy stories, full of amazing stitching. Most intriguing to me is how American wealthy family literally bought British and European culture-- their titles and their possessions.
The Smithsonian channel is running a new series based on these Dollar Princesses. Here is a link to Million Dollar American Princesses. I am two episodes in and it is fabulous (so are all the books that the guest speakers have written if you are interested!). It is my excitement about this new series and Downton Abbey season 5 just starting in the US this week that inspired me to do a "throw back" post to my thesis project.
When it came time to choose the inspiration for my thesis project in grad school, I knew I wanted to focus on bridal fashion and embroidery, but I could not decide on a concept. One of my peers asked me, "Who would be your dream client of all time?" "Consuelo Vanderbilt," was my reply without even blinking. And, so I embarked on a 2 year adventure that took me from North Carolina to Newport, Rhode Island to Blenheim Palace and London. I read everything that I could get my hands on concerning Consuelo Vanderbilt, America's Gilded Age, Victorian and Edwardian Britain, and a phenomenon that has a grip on me-- the Dollar Princesses, the group of girls traded from wealthy American families to British and European noble families for titles. The British and European families were in need of a new cash infusion. The American families needed social status and acceptance, which a title granted automatically.
For my project, Consuelo: The Glitter of a Dollar Duchess, I handcrafted a modern wedding gown inspired by Consuelo’s marriage to the 9th Duke of Marlborough using a vocabulary of ivory silk satin and silver embroidery. I explored the blending of tradition with modernity, as illustrated in the many American Nouveau Riche that “invaded” British society at the end of the 19th Century. It was my desire to honor Consuelo with this dress while also alluding to some of the realities in her situation.
The final gown was embroidery with over 73 individual motifs including 8 sets of strawberry leaves to represent the Duke's coronet, orange blossoms to represent Victorian wedding happiness, and acorns to represent the Vanderbilt family. Silver was chosen for the embroidery and the petticoat as it had been a popular choice for numerous European and British royal brides over the centuries that served as the inspiration for these arranged marriages established for economic, social and political gain.
Below are some images of my final piece, but if you would like to see my whole process below is a link to my thesis blog (or you could check out my written thesis at the NC State University library!). All the hand embroidery was completed by myself. The gown and petticoat were handcrafted by myself utilizing traditional couture dressmaking methods. My blog covers the whole process from the sampling, patternmaking, fitting, constructing, embroidering, and finishing the final gown and petticoat.
100% Silk Double-faced Satin with Silver metal threads (some are silver plated, some of 90% silver, see previous posts for specifics for each motif)
Bra top is ivory 100% silk Duchess satin with natural cotton padded bust cups.
Corselet is 100% cotton tulle with grosgrain casings filled with spiral steel boning.
Skirt Yoke and Lining is 100% natural silk Double-face Satin with tea stained Valencienne lace trim and blue grosgrain ribbon bows.
Outer Skirt and Bustle is Silver Silk Metallic Tissue (warp is silk, weft is metal) with 3" white horsehair braid and tea stained Valencienne lace trim.
Studio Photographs by: Austin Simmons
Detail photographs by: Katherine Diuguid
Model: Leigh Hawkins
Pedestal: Trevor Lacasse
Pedestal: Trevor Lacasse
Hair and Nails: Alter Ego, Raleigh
Make-up: Katherine Diuguid, Leigh Hawkins, and Shelley Smith
Location: Carol Grotnes Belk Rotunda, Brooks Hall, College of Design, NC State