Dressing Down: Private Life and the Dressing Gown, 1890-1950
Running the Household
A lady’s private suite often included a study where she could retire to write letters, read, or plan her upcoming social engagements. Daily work included consulting the head butler, superintendent, or head housekeeper about the day's agenda and arranging carriages or cars, organizing the schedule of houseguests, and -- most importantly -- helping to plan the daily menus, as lunch, tea, and dinner were ritual in any fashionable Newport summer cottage of the period. In this vignette, it is 10:00am, and the lady of the house stands by her late 19th century Louis XVI style roll-top desk, strewn with the day’s menus for her approval. The menus seen here were written by William Gilmour for Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt (later Mrs. O. H. P. Belmont) while he was superintendent of Marble House from 1892-1908.
While carrying out her duties as head of household, a lady would have been granted a reprieve from her corset, but the 19th century paisley tea gown shown here nevertheless incorporates a bustle in keeping with the fashionable silhouette of the period. Wrappers like this one were among the first women’s garments to become commercially available, but the upper classes continued to have such apparel custom made. This gown carries the label of established dressmaker Jennie M. Carr of Providence, RI.
By the late 1920s, corsets and the silhouettes they imposed were becoming passé, but the dressing gown evolved and endured. The Callot sisters, to whom the more modern kimono-style silk dressing gown, shown here, is attributed, were trained by their mother in lacemaking and initially worked with antique laces and ribbons to enhance lingerie and blouses. By 1914, Callot Soeurs was one of the leading Parisian fashion houses helping to set the fashion standard for the Western world.
These two dressing gowns reflect changing social norms at the turn of the century and also the persistence of Orientalism in Western dress throughout this transition. The paisley butah pattern of the 19th century tea gown and the kimono style sleeves of the silk robe reflect an enduring affinity for “Eastern” flair.
Photography by Al Weems