The Charleston Museum – Charleston Couture

While in Charleston my sister and I were able to pay a visit to the excellent Charleston Museum.  I’ve written about the Charleston Museum before, and to read more about the museum you can visit that earlier entry.  On this visit, there were four exhibitions in the Historic Textiles Gallery.  The museum has a varied collection of textiles, and now that they have a gallery devoted solely to textiles, there is always something of interest to people like me.

This year they have dedicated the first display cases to the four seasons.   For summer, the curator put together a range of swimwear, accompanied by appropriate ephemera and accessories.   The Charleston Museum collection is made up mainly of things that do have a connection to the city and to the surrounding area, and most of their exhibits are historical in nature.  Oftentimes, the items chosen are not only interesting fashion, but they also add to the story of the city.

Such is the case with the blue eyelet swimsuit and cover-up in the top photo.  Vintage fashion people will be interested to know that the set dates to 1959 and is by Rose Marie Reid.  History buffs will be interested to know that the original owner was the daughter of the man who developed the Isle of Palms, and that the owner and her husband developed Kiawah Island.  Today both are famous beach resorts in the Charleston area.

The Charleston Museum has been collecting clothing for a long time the red striped suit was donated to the museum by its original owner, May Snowden, in 1925.

The tan checked suit in this photo belonged to Charles Hume Haig of Charleston, who wore it as a young man in the late 19th century.

Note the Jantzen diving girl on the two piece suit from the 1950s.  The blue knit suit in the top photo is also a Jantzen, and has a Charleston store label.

Much of the Historic Textile Gallery is now housing an exhibit called Charleston Couture.  The exhibit is a chronology of fashionable clothing that was worn by Charlestonians, though not all of it is, strictly speaking, haute couture.   It is a good opportunity if you, like me, need more exposure to items before 1920.

All the 18th and 19th century dresses above came from Charleston estates, but in all cases, it cannot be determined with certainty who the original wearers were.  The museum has good educated guesses for them though, using what they know about the age of the dress, the women in the household and other historical clues.

The Charleston Museum is really good about showing not just dresses, but also menswear and accessories.

The ivory dress is by Charles Frederick Worth and it is a true beauty, but the pink and black dress has the more interesting history.  It was made by Pauline Seba in 1890 for the trousseau of a prominent Charleston woman.  Seba, a Black woman,  was probably born into slavery in 1862, and rose to become one of the few Charleston dressmakers of the late 19th century who labeled their work.  Mme. Seba, Robes, Charleston, SC.

Another piece from Worth, this evening coat is made from black net, covered with glass beads.  The sleeves are cut-work lace, covered with black chiffon.

Mariano Fortuny, of course.   The two Delphos dresses belonged to the same woman who owned the Worth coat.  Can you just imagine what her closet was like?

The black stenciled coat is also by Fortuny, and it belonged to Charleston artist Elizabeth O’ Neill Varner.  Several years ago the coat was in an exhibit at the museum, and due to the lack of space, was shown flat.  What a difference it makes seeing it on a form!

So much prettiness!  The black 1920s was made by Francois Bacus, in Luneville, France.  The firm employed embroiderers in the art of broderie de Luneville.  The pink robe de style was inspired by the work of Jeanne Lanvin.  As for the stunning one shouldered black number with the train, no label was mentioned in the exhibition notes, but it was owned by Gertrude Sanford Legendre, a wealthy South Carolina/New York  socialite and woman after my own heart, so it is possible the label was removed.

The green gown was worn by Eleanor Rutledge Hanson in 1932 for a court visit at Buckingham Palace.  Note the matching jacket.  The little sequined jacket is from Hattie Carnegie, but there were no details given for the black dress with the spectacular sleeves.  Oddly, the coral dress is from Lee Clair, a line of “better” cocktail wear for juniors.

The black and white ensemble is from Bill Blass, and the red dress is by Estevez.

There was also a quilt exhibit, and one on Lowcountry embroidery.  I’ll be showing a spectacular piece from it later on.


Filed under Museums

6 responses to “The Charleston Museum – Charleston Couture

  1. Oh so many lovely things! I think it’s better I simply look at your images, because if I was there in person, I think I’d end up in jail! I’d be trying to take it all home!


  2. ourdailydress

    Oh, yum. I love the bathing suit and the cover up and the second navy dress.


  3. Wish I could fly over the sea and visit Charleston now, what an incredible collection. I’ve never seen a Fortuny in real life, and I am in love with the Worth evening jacket.


  4. Wow, gorgeous things! I’m putting this museum on the list now of places to visit the next time we drive down to visit the in-laws in Florida. I was pleased to see the Worth gown and especially the Seba. I now want to revise my ideas for the 1890s ball gown I’m constructing!


  5. Historic bathing suits make me laugh. They are so dumpy and funny looking.

    Really interesting to learn about Pauline Seba. We definitely need more stories like women like her in the fashion canon.

    Lastly, swooning a bit from photos 5 and 10.


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