Fashion, Paintings, and Photography from the Acton Mitchell Family (19 June – 29 September, 2023)

Project Curation: Francesca Baldry and Claudia Beyer with the collaboration of NYU students

The Fashion Milieu of the 1920s and 1930s at Villa La Pietra

Matilde Serao, director of the magazine “La Moda del Giorno,” and a friend of Henry James and Edith Wharton, wrote: “You need to think, judge, choose, dear reader, what is liked by your own innate taste, to the culture of your fantasy, you need to love Fashion as she is if it is in accordance with your own beauty and charm.” Looking at the gowns owned by Hortense Mitchell Acton (1871-1962) we feel that this ‘petite’ and naturally elegant character identified herself with the ‘Callot taste’, using it to assert her personality. Serao’s books were on the shelves of her library and she definitely admired the force behind this writer, the first woman to found and direct a newspaper in Italy. The Callot Sisters were also among the first women fashion designers to become world famous. Callot Soeurs opened in 1895 at 24, rue Taitbout in Paris, France. It was operated by the four Callot sisters: Marie Callot Gerber, Marthe Callot Bertrand, Regina Callot Tennyson-Chantrell and Joséphine Callot Crimon. Their mother was an expert lacemaker. Lace, for its intricacy and beauty, was one of the fabrics that most characterized the sisters’ work. Many of Hortense’s clothes include elaborate lace details, or are totally made in lace; others include Asian inspired patterns or precious materials, like lamé fabrics, known for their festive brightness.

Villa La Pietra in the 1920s-1930s was considered one of the most celebrated Florentine places for international taste in the arts, literature and fashion. Harold Acton (1904-1994), the son of Hortense and Arthur Acton, remembered clearly those decades: “In Florence there was a succession of tango-teas […]. Night clubs had been opened where people of all ages danced the fox-trot to antiquated tunes […]; my parents welcomed half of Florence to the villa, as well as itinerant museum directors and art critics”. Among the guests you could meet in the ‘Salone’ of the Villa were celebrities such as Reggie Turner, a great fox-trot dancer, Hugh Walpole, Somerset Maugham, Rebecca West, Donna Cora Caetani Antinori, Francesca Notarbartolo De Villarosa Contessa d’Orsay, Contessa Lysina Rucellai, the Sitwells and many others. Mrs. Acton, the “petite and well-groomed hostess, often dressed in a kimono, and purveyor of famous martini cocktails following afternoon tea” was the main force behind these events (Memoirs of an Aesthete, 1948).

The exhibition project showcases seven Callot Soeurs gowns with André Perugia and Hellstern & Sons shoes, all custom-designed for Hortense and dated between the 1920s and 30s. The installation is designed imagining the lifestyle and happenings at La Pietra about one century ago: magazines and photographs on display show us the passion of the family and guests for parties and fashion. In the ‘Salone’ the couples were dancing to foxtrot music played on the gramophone, while we imagine Hortense was quietly leaving the floor, walking up the stairs in the Rotonda. The elegant Vuitton luggage there recalls the many journeys of the family, who traveled constantly throughout Europe, to the US, and to Asia. In the room next to the ‘Salone’, called ‘Sala del Caminetto’ we have installed a selection of photographs and paintings portraying celebrities wearing the fashion of the time.

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Fashion in the Twenties-Thirties

From Hortense Mitchell Acton's Personal Wardrobe


Condition, Conservation and Display

Before beginning to prepare costumes for display



Shoes and hats




Hortense Mitchell Acton with Guy Mitchell and other unidentified people on the back of a train in the US, ca. 1930

Hortense Mitchell was a voracious traveler ever since she was a girl in Chicago; this hobby took her all across the globe and in 1932, the Nile River in Egypt. During her voyages, she collected a plethora of postcards from different landmarks and monuments, many documented in The Acton Mitchell Photograph Archive. Beside the train and transatlantic ships, Hortense is documented with Arthur driving various cars, such as a Fiat and a De Dion-Bouton which they drove around the peninsula. Her outfit during these journeys was very comfortable and casual.




Courier Lozine Laundry Trunk May 13, 1930 Louis Vuitton, Paris, France
Monogrammed Leather on Wood “LV”, metal, textile. Monogram with painted initials “HMA”
N INT: 791232 N° serrure 079453

Luis Vuitton Trunk

This monogrammed Louis Vuitton trunk was purchased by the Actons in 1930 in Paris,  France.
A family of travelers, this trunk accompanied Hortense Mitchell Acton on international trips. The use of wardrobe trunks was popular amongst wealthy families in the 20th century as a convenient way to pack and access clothes during their journeys. Often outfitted with racks, drawers, shelves, or even entire vanity sets (including a table and chair), the inside of Louis Vuitton trunks were custom designed and made- to-order to suit the travel needs of each customer.

Painting Activity: Arthur and William Acton


Magazines & Music

Nothing evokes the recent past so potently as an illustrated magazine, limp and dog-eared, and tear-stained perhaps for the ever-insistent passage of youth, and the dream of happiness. Hortense collected extensive editions of both “Vogue” and “Vanity Fair” magazines, especially during the 1920s and 1930s. These worn out copies highlight so well the fashion, design, and artistic trends of the villa milieu. It is likely that she subscribed to these materials for wardrobe inspiration when attending cocktail parties or formal events, or for entertainment of what was popular at the time. Other large forms of amusement were music and the most popular genres were jazz, blues, swing, dance band and ragtime. In the ‘Salone’, there is a recently donated 1910-11 gramophone, and a new grand piano: while not original to the Acton Mitchell collection, the villa still preserves over 140 records, including many dance music.


A walk-through the exhibition


Project Curation: Francesca Baldry and Claudia Beyer with the collaboration of NYU students: Morgan Caramello, Pieper Grantham, Richa Mallampalli and Sahana Srinivasan

Photograph Archive Research: Francesca Baldry and Pamela Ferrari

Costume Conservators: Claudia Beyer and Costanza Perrone Da Zara

Installation: Claudia Beyer, Fortunato Ingino, Stefano Pasolini with NYU students: Morgan Caramello, Pieper Grantham, Richa Mallampalli and Sahana Srinivasan

Photographer/Videographer: Claudia Beyer; Milo Soriano, NYU student

Texts: Francesca Baldry, Claudia Beyer, Morgan Caramello, Pieper Grantham, Richa Mallampalli, Carla Orofino and Sahana Srinivasan

Brochure and Web Layout: Cristina Fantacci with Asjah Moore

Special Thanks To:
Perri Klass, Larry Wolff,
Lorenzo Ricci, Andrea Scavetta

This project was inspired by the Centennial Commemoration of Franco Zeffirelli (1923 – 2023)