Though the 1920s are often remembered for the simplification of fashion, especially in terms of silhouette, the party culture of the decade continued to keep intricate and expensive designs in demand. Hemlines rose, waistlines were loosened, while fringes, beading, and flashy fabrics ruled the dance floor. The 1930s saw a return to longer dresses, with the bias cut rising in popularity to create feminine body-skimming silhouettes. Cheaper reproductions of Hollywood costumes led to the democratization of high-fashion and a booming design-stealing industry amongst the middle class, though wealthy women like Hortense would still have their outfits made custom with high-quality materials. Overall, the dresses exhibited here show the styles of their eras, exude the luxuriousness expected from French haute couture, and find a perfect home amongst the party culture of the wealthy in the first half of the 20th century.

Red Silk Velvet Late Afternoon/Cocktail Dress

This luxurious red dress hallmarks the evolving fashion of the 1920s and 30s. The eye-catching silk chenille fringes dangling from the sleeves and hem allude to the swinging style of jazz-dancing flappers of the era. However, this dress was likely not designed for doing the Charleston, but instead for relaxed cocktail parties or late afternoon engagements. The loose “la garçonne” silhouette of this two-piece dress is a trademark of women’s modern fashion; a departure from the restricted and exaggerated figure of the Edwardian Era. The use of three-dimensional quilted details suggest possible cubist influences in the design. One of the circular elements had detached stitching that was stabilized during conservation.

Black Satin Two-piece Day Dress

Designed by Callot Soeurs, ca. 1929.

This ensemble includes a bloused bodice paired with a matching flared skirt and is a masterful merger of design elements borrowed from The Ballet Russes. The banded drop waist blouse features a surplice construction, cuffed and relaxed sleeves, and v-neckline. The blouse, the skirt and the sleeves are edged with pink and blue silk trim overlays, embroidered with glass beads and metallic thread. The heavy but soft silk crêpe back satin suggests that the garment was designed for cold seasons. Despite the great effort made during the steaming process, by using an ultrasonic humidifier, a few creases are still visible in the heavy satin, due to improper storage in the Acton time.

Cream Cotton Lace Afternoon Dress

Designed by Callot Soeurs, ca. 1929.

The straight long-waisted dress is made of very fine cotton lace showing through a built-in slip of cream and black silk satin adorned on the hip and the hem with a gold metallic lamé trim overlay. It has cuffed sleeves with charming buttons covered with cream silk threads. Falling from the boat neckline, a long black silk satin tie, with a large bow at the center front, giving a slender and more severe silhouette. The hem is wavy and uneven; the front is longer than the back. Light stain removal and steaming was performed during the treatment.

Floral Printed Gold lamé Sheath Dress

This dress is an example of draping within couture in the early 20th century. Worn by Hortense Acton for cocktail parties at the Villa, the dress stands as an ode to the innovations surrounding costume construction at the time, coupled with Hortense’s admiration for Asian motifs, such as the use of Chinese peonies printed across the dress. The large floral application was supported for display by consolidating the underlying fabric area. The gold metallic lamé exemplifies Hortense’s grandeur in style, as one can imagine her sipping a cocktail in the Rotonda while the party begins.

Black Silk Lace Evening Dress

Designed by Callot Soeurs, Paris, ca. 1929

This spectacular dress with a V back neckline, which was a great novelty starting from the late 1920s, is composed of an over dress and its under dress. The over dress is made of black silk Chantilly lace, backed around the hips by a strip of golden lamé. The under dress is made of a cream silk satin bodice and a skirt with gold thread embroidered cream colored lace that is showing through the black lace. The over and the under dress have tiered ruffles that give volume to the uneven hem. One aspect, yet to be ascertained, is the material of which the lamé fabric is made; in fact it’s not the usual ‘metallic lamé’ found in Callot Soeurs dresses. The tears in the lace have been stabilized by recreating the broken bindings in the textile structure.

Embroidered Silk Net Sheath Evening Dress

Designed possibly by Callot Soeurs, Paris, ca. 1929.

This exquisite off-white dress encapsulates the tubular silhouette of the 1920s due to its short, beaded style. The elegant French design is perfect for an evening occasion because of its cascading petal shaped skirt, where the edges are outlined with various pearls and beads creating a distinctive texture. In the front, the dress is embellished with an ornate brooch adding an extra layer of dimensionality to the design. In addition, the delicate top portion is married to the adorned bottom by the embroidered silver thread running throughout. Before display, the missing slip for the dress was created and loose or detached metal embroidery was also restitched.

Pale Pink Two-piece Silk Chiffon Evening Dress

Designed by Callot Soeurs. Paris, 1932.

This represents early 1930s fashion in a break from the shorter, flapper silhouette of the 1920s and with an emphasis on accentuating the feminine waist and elongating the torso. The dress portion is made out of silk chiffon and silk lace. It features a bias cut, a classic feature in 1930s evening dresses, and also has a slightly longer back with a small train. The silk lace panels feature flowers bordered by shiny silk threads giving an almost three-dimensional appearance. The slip featured is the original and is made of silk satin. A pink makeup stain on this dress, illustrating its frequent use, was documented and gently removed by the textile conservator, as well as many sharp vertical creases that were painstakingly released from the numerous fabric layers.

Fall 2023 article on “Threads” about the Callot Soeurs Gowns at Villa La Pietra

Maggie Raywood is a retired associate professor/costume director at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, New York. For this project, she worked closely with Francesca Baldry, Manager of Collections at Villa La Pietra and conservators Costanza Perrone Da Zara and Claudia Beyer of Restauro Tessile-