Photo Credit: Riccardo Cavallari

The pink and cream silk evening Callot Soeur dress is representative of the early stage of Hortense Mitchell Acton’s (insert link to bio) life at La Pietra. It can be dated around 1907, when her portrait by the Detroit painter Julius Rolshoven was commissioned and displayed in the Villa. With her English husband Arthur Acton, Hortense shared an appreciation for the arts and kept many noteworthy artists within her network such as: Jacques-Emile Blanche, William Merritt Chase, James Montgomery Flagg, and Paul César Helleu. These important artists’ work can also be found throughout the collection today. The painting by Rolshoven is the only portrait in the collection where Hortense is wearing one of the gowns from her haute couture wardrobe. Rolshoven, a Detroit artist who settled down in Florence in 1907 and opened a studio for young artists, depicts Mrs. Acton with a soft and light brush stroke, influenced in style by Chase, with whom he worked in Florence. Both the dress and the portrait remind viewers that Hortense was as real signora, as described by her son Harold (1948) and by the art historian Alvar González-Palacios (1960). By the time she was painted, she had settled down in La Pietra and had given birth to both of her sons, Harold in 1904 and William in 1906. She was depicted as a family person with a strong awareness of her status.

Who Was Julius Rolshoven?

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A Tale of the Pink Faille

You arrive at Villa La Pietra. Gliding through the welcome hall, you set down your coat and bag in the mirrored wardrobe. Inky-figured prints line the corridor walls. So many items and artefacts grab your attention as you make your way through the house: Oriental vases, Arabic lamps, and sixteenth-century Renaissance panels. You step through the glass doors and suddenly the villa blossoms into the Rotonda. A spiral staircase leads towards the glass ceiling, illuminating the domed room. Hortense shines atop the staircase where she waits to lead you up the stairs and to the ballroom.

The curators and conservators have this vision for the display of Hortense’s well-loved pink faille silk and cream satin evening gown. In the early 1900s, a time of expatriates and Florentine revival, Hortense and her husband hosted many dinner parties and the magnificent hostess always had a spectacular dress to wear. An elegant pink and cream evening gown was found amongst the current collection’s assortment of garments.

The Callot Soeurs designed this gown in the early 1900s. In The Great Fashion Designers, the Callot Soeurs are described as “a Parisian fashion business run by three sisters”, which “began as a specialist in lace, developing into a fully-fledged house renowned for the quality of its work and precise details. Although the house closed its doors in 1937 and is little known today, in its prime it was one of the greatest of all couture businesses[…]” With this great fashion business behind the dress’ production, of course it would turn out beautifully.

Originally, the conservators found the dress stored in a steamer trunk in Villa La Pietra, packed along with many of Hortense’s gorgeous gowns. The dress was saved by her son Harold Acton, who attempted to preserve it by keeping it in the trunk, away from light and dust. For the most part, he succeeded in his attempt; the dress could be in much worse condition and from afar seems to have suffered no damage at all. Yet upon closer inspection, conservators discovered rips, tears, frayed hems, stains, wrinkles, and even moth-eaten holes in several areas of the fabric.

Despite the damage, the unique beauty of the dress is more than evident. Floor length, it is a soft, shiny cream satin composed of a bodice and skirt. Delicate white silk lace lines the satin on the bodice; it transforms into an intricate metallic lace woven with very thin metallic threads. Silver flowers of varying sizes embroider this overlay. Embroidered with a silver thread wider than the others, the flower petals twinkle in the light, resembling rays of a full moon. A pink faille silk train is sewn over this cream silk and lace satin. This rosy train trails down the gown, ascending down the back and wrapping the front of the bodice with two wide-set interlocking straps. Characteristics such as this peculiar pink faille train-cape develop the unique individualism of the dress. However, now that we have the gown, it is a question of what must be done to restore its former glory.

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