Ball gown, c. 1895,
Worth, Paris
Gift of Mrs. William Bender, 1960, Bruce Museum Collection 20480

Evening dress, C. 1901
Maker unknown.
Gift of Rosalie Hornblower Catlin, Bruce Museum Collection 86.23.21

Afternoon dress, c. 1850
American, maker unknown
Gift of Mrs. E. Rayne Herzog, 1960, Bruce Museum Collection 20484

Wedding veil, Point de Gaze needlelace
Brussels, Belgium, late 19th century
Gift of Mrs. Patty Auchincloss, Bruce Museum Collection 2007.02

The Dressmaker’s Art: Highlights of the Bruce Museum’s Costume Collection

May 15, 2010 - September 5, 2010

The Bruce Museum’s major summer exhibition, The Dressmaker’s Art: Highlights from the Bruce Museum’s Costume Collection, organized by guest curator Adrienne Saint-Pierre, features twenty-four elegant gowns and dresses along with displays of lavishly embellished accessories and underpinnings such as taffeta and lace petticoats, primarily taken from the collection of the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut. Additional items are on loan from the Fairfield Museum and History Center. The exhibition is supported by a Committee of Honor under the leadership of Myrna R. Haft and Tamara Holliday, and the Charles M. and Deborah G. Royce Exhibition Fund.

The early 19th-century revolution in textile manufacture saw a dramatic shift from labor-intensive hand methods to more efficient machine production. This revolution paved the way for many new industries - in fact, new ways of doing almost everything, especially in America. Fashion and dressmaking, as beneficiaries of this vastly increased textile production, were an integral part of this sweeping change.

  • Manufacturers responded to the demands of an increasing middle and upper middle class population for all things “new,” which also drove more rapid changes in fashion.
  • Changes in the style, silhouette, cut, and fabric of women’s attire accelerated as the 19th century progressed.
  • The invention of the sewing machine made it possible to create ever more elaborate gowns, despite the machine’s original purpose as a labor-saving tool. Keeping pace with fashion and its requisite specialized garments - morning, afternoon, and evening wear, with further subdivisions of occasions for wear - became almost a full-time occupation for the woman of means. Dressmaking - the art of creating a custom fit, fashionable, and aesthetically pleasing garment - rose to new heights in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

“The Dressmaker’s Art” exhibition covers this 100-year period, an era that offered a wide array of silhouettes and styles.

  • The earliest gown on display is a light bronze-color satin, which dates from the late 1820s, the Romantic era, and features large puffed sleeves, hinting at the balloon-sized sleeves which followed in the 1830s.
  • Most of the gowns on view represent the closely fit fashions of the mid- to late Victorian period and the opulent Edwardian Era.
  • A few examples of the more “modern” styles of the 1920s are also included.
  • Two stunning wedding gowns and an extraordinary hand-made lace veil from the latter half of the 19th century are also featured, as well as a selection of lightweight cotton summer gowns from the 1890s to 1920.

Many of the most beautifully designed dresses in collections of 19th-century gowns remain as anonymous works of art. This is true of many gowns that are shown in this exhibit, although there are examples from famous and lesser-known dressmakers as well.

  • The best-known dress designer of the 19th century was Charles Frederick Worth, considered the father of haute couture, an Englishman who built his career in France. The exhibition includes a dress from the House of Worth, a mid-1890s gown of ivory silk satin woven with pink roses, and trimmed with emerald green silk velvet. The House of Worth was famous for their sumptuous textiles, custom-made by silk mills in Lyon.
  • A circa-1908 dress created by the House of Doucet, established by Parisian designer Jacques Doucet, reflects the pastel colors and delicate fabrics characteristic of the Edwardian palette. The light cream color gown is richly embroidered in shades of rose, ecru, and pink, representing flowers and tasseled swags, a delightful design.

Accessories, both worn and carried, are also on view.

  • A Brussels lace wedding veil dating to the late 19th century, and worn in 1903, is displayed for the first time. The magnificent 115-inch veil, entirely handmade of Point de Gaze needlelace, is a recent gift to the Bruce Museum from Mrs. Patty Auchincloss.
  • Other accessories include silk capes and parasols, which would have been the completing touch to gowns worn in an open carriage or when strolling in a public garden or park.
  • A selection of silk petticoats, satin corsets and fancy silk stockings are also included.


A three-part series of lectures by noted fashion historians explores 200 years of American dressmaking and fashion history. The lectures are followed by docent-led tours of the exhibition The Dressmaker’s Art: Highlights from the Bruce Museum’s Costume Collection. Series price for all three lectures: $12 Museum members, $18 non-members. Single lectures: $5 Museum members, $7 non-members. Advance reservations recommended; call the Museum at 203-869-0376.

  • Wed., May 26, 1:30 p.m. The Art and “Science” of American Dressmaking 1820-1920. Adrienne Saint Pierre, Guest Curator of the Bruce Museum’s exhibition and Curator at the Fairfield Museum and History Center, provides a context for understanding 19th-century fashion as the “golden age” of the dressmaker’s art. She discusses the significant changes in the cut and fit of women’s garments from the early 19th century to early 20th century, with an emphasis on the late Victorian period – the era when the idea of “scientific fit” was popularized.
  • Wed., June 23, 1:30 p.m. Fashion and the American Image, 1930s-1950s. Jennifer Farley, Assistant Curator at The Museum at F.I.T. in New York provides an overview of American fashion history from the depression years through post-war suburban America, covering such designers as Adrian, Mainbocher, and Claire McCardell. The lecture explores the creation of an American image through the influence of Hollywood glamour in the 1930s, the rise of sportswear and innovative American ready-to-wear during World War II, and the culture of 1950’s suburbia.
  • Wed., July 14, 1:30 p.m. Reinventing Glamour: American Fashion, 1960-Today. Colleen Hill, Assistant Curator at The Museum at F.I.T. in New York presents the final lecture exploring American fashion design from the latter half of the 20th century. During this time, fashion was increasingly associated with jeans, t-shirts, and other casual sportswear, however a number of designers, such as Halston, Norman Norell, and Pauline Trigère, were making chic, technically innovative clothing that rivaled European styles. Her talk concludes with a discussion of inventive, contemporary American dressmakers and their place in today’s fashion industry.