“Paris Spring 1909″ – these few words, handwritten in pencil, on the verso of a photograph depicting Hortense Mitchell Acton help us date one of the first dresses the signora bought in Paris from the Callot Soeurs Haute Couture fashion house. The photograph, which is currently part of The Acton Photograph Archive at Villa La Pietra, was taken with other shots of the same subject in different poses in the H.A.V. Coles photography studio in Paris. The archives hold over 25,000 images, but among the many of Hortense, only two depict Mrs. Acton in recognizable Callot Soeurs dresses. This explains the early years when Hortense had settled in the villa with her husband Arthur, began an art collection and gave birth to Harold in 1904 and William in 1906. As with the case of the dress she wore when she was portrayed by Julius Rolshoven circa 1907, this dress tells us how Mrs. Acton was carefully building her new social status in Europe, and Paris was the reference point par excellence at the turn of the century, especially for those who came from overseas. Her readings (Montesquieu, Balzac, Flaubert and the Goncourt brothers, to name a few), her wardrobe and her trunks all lead to the Ville Lumiére. The evening dress confirms the Edwardian-Belle Époque phase of the Callot sisters, which featured a more linear cut. It still had a high waist, the S-bend silhouette and pastel colors like pink and sky blue, but it was all done with a new air. This was understood through the rich use of lace, chiffon and tulle as well as flattering necklines and cuffs that offered a glimpse of the arms through the use of tulle and especially the decorative embroidered motifs, imported from the Near and Far East, like the abstract embroidery on the 1909 dress, alluding to clouds and peacock wheels.

In this washroom/wardrobe, we imagined a departure and an arrival. The four trunks are open and show precious fabrics from countries in Asia like China, Japan and India. In the first ten years of the twentieth century, Hortense and her son Harold (from 1932-1939) had the opportunity to take long trips to the east, bringing back small objects, like fans, parasols, caps, board games, head ornaments and fabrics of all sorts to decorate the home and keep a close connection to the countries whose cultures they loved so much. The practical and elegant Louis Vuitton steamer trunks physically transported their clothing, shoes and everything needed for a long transatlantic journey and for stays in foreign countries as well as all the objects they took home. Symbolically, the trunks transported the influence of a culture created from travels through space and time.

Louis Vuitton Trunks

Since its inception in 1854, Louis Vuitton has become a globally recognized brand and symbol of wealth. In the Acton collection at Villa La Pietra, we are fortunate to possess ten original LV trunks, four of which have been displayed as part of a temporary exhibition on the subject of fashion and lifestyle in the twenties. Through this luggage, we are able to gain insight into the narrative of the Acton family. These trunks speak not only to the incredible wealth of the Actons, but also to their globalized, cosmopolitan lifestyle.

One trunk in the collection dons the first signature pattern created and used by Vuitton, the Damier. The later-introduced pattern most people recognize today, The Monogram, was created in 1896 by George Vuitton. This pattern uses motifs that refer to both Egyptian and Japanese traditions. Along with the Vuitton designs, take notice of the varied monograms on the trunks. The trunk with the Damier design displays the monogram “HLM” for Hortense Louise Mitchell because it was purchased by Hortense on May 7, 1900 before she married Arthur. She was interested in travel long before her marriage, so the family’s obsession came from both sides. Another trunk exhibits Arthur’s monogram, AMA for Arthur Mario Acton. This trunk was acquired on June 25, 1899 and while it belonged to Arthur, it was purchased by Hortense as a gift before they were married. These trunks, even those that do not belong to Hortense, speak to her keen interest in everything French. Her collection of Callot Soeurs haute couture gowns was even discovered inside these trunks, which says something about how Hortense valued and respected both brands.

It is clear that with 10 large trunks they all traveled extensively and frequently. The Acton family loved to travel, especially to China and Japan. Even if the Actons did not know that traditions from these places inspired the monogram design of Vuitton, it makes sense they would enjoy his style.

One particularly well-documented trip Hortense took was to Egypt. There are many postcards with her notes written on them about the trip in the collection, as well as books and magazines about Egypt that she most likely read in preparation for journey such as this 1929 article When you go into Egypt in Vogue, given her interest in this publication.