Reynolda House Costume Collection

When I first started documenting my visits to costume collections and exhibitions in 2003, the first place I visited was the Reynolda House in Winston-Salem. Reynolda was built by the RJ Reynolds family, who had made a fortune in tobacco. RJ’s wife, Katherine Smith Reynolds, was actually the driving force behind Reynolda. She bought the land as a working farm and later planned a sixty room house for the family.

Before falling in love with Katherine (who was his personal secretary, second cousin, and 30 years younger than he) RJ had long been Winston-Salem’s most eligible bachelor. Katherine was a good example of the “New Woman” of the turn of the 20th century. She was educated, earning a degree in English in 1902. She taught for a while, and then went to work for RJ Reynolds. In February, 1905, the two were married.

Reynolda House stayed within the family until 1964, when the estate was incorporated as a nonprofit dedicated to art and education. In 1967 the house was opened as a museum of American art. The Reynolds family had not been big collectors of art, but it was a good time to be buying art and the collection was able to grow.

In 1972 many articles of clothing belonging to the Reynolds family were found stored away in the attic of the house. After conservation, the clothing collection was put on display in the attic, where special cases were built. Because most of the original wearers of the clothes were then deceased, the curators used family stories, photographic evidence, and the house archives to figure out who wore each item. Some are still not entirely attributed.

The dress above is an example. It was most likely worn by Katherine Smith before her marriage. The style is very much what a young woman would have worn around the time she graduated from college in 1902.

According to family interviews taken when the clothes were found, Katherine was an accomplished seamstress. Even though she came from a privileged background, it is likely that fancy hand sewing was part of her education. This negligee was said to have been made by her for her honeymoon.

Her wedding suit still exists, but I’ve only seen photos of it. Some of the articles are too fragile to display, or it could be that I’ve just missed it as the clothes are rotated from time to time. Again, family tradition holds that she made her suit, but she would have to have been a real expert as it is quite elaborate.

For their honeymoon, RJ and Katherine did what rich people usually did – they went on a tour of Europe. While in Paris, Katherine commissioned two gowns from the couture house, Compagnie Lyonnaise. The one here is made from crepe de Chine, and is decorated with multiple lace medallions, silk embroidery, and tiny buttons.

All those ovals are inset lace, and I wish you could better see the embroidery. Quite nice!

Here’s a very fancy sleeve, and a tiny taste of the back detail.

The couple first lived in Winston-Salem, but in 1912 Katherine’s house in the country was begun. It was finally finished in 1917, but unfortunately, by that time RJ was seriously ill. He died in 1918, having lived in the new house for only a few months. Katherine and their four children remained at the house. She quietly remarried in 1921, the groom being the principal of the estate’s school, and a much younger man.

This dress belonged to Katherine, and was made for her by New York dressmakers, Frances and Co, around 1922.

Without a doubt, this cape is my favorite of the pieces currently on display. It from Paris design house, Boué Soeurs, who were known for their use of constructed flower ornamentation.

I love how the tie ends are pulled through the wreath of fabric flowers.

Sad to say, but Katherine died in 1924, after giving birth at the age of 44. The four Reynolds children were put under the trust of relatives and continued to live at Reynolda. I didn’t take photos, but one section of the attic is devoted to their toys.

There are also some clothes that belonged to Katherine’s daughters.  This stunning gown and mantle was made by New York designer Jesse Franklin Turner for Mary Reynolds Babcock. The dress is a rich satin, and the mantle is velvet. There is a 1937 portrait of Mary wearing this dress on the Reynolda website.

This Hattie Carnegie gown with matching jacket was worn by Katherine’s daughter Nancy Susan Reynolds Bagley. It dates to the mid 1950s.

Horrible photo, but you get the idea, right?

The attic also contains lots of hats and accessories. These were probably worn by Katherine. Note the transparency of the lace hat on the left. So beautiful!

There are also some very nice hats from the 1930s and 40s that belonged to the Reynolds daughters.

I first visited Reynolda House in 1971 while on a class trip to see the historical highlights of the state. The clothes had not yet been found, but I remember so much from that first visit. Since then I’ve been back several times, and each visit brings new discoveries. Even without that lovely attic, the house is worth a visit. There is the best miniature Calder mobile, and one of my favorite Grant Wood paintings, and the most exquisite Maurice Prendergast painting.

And to make it even better, right now they have a special exhibition, Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern. Because I was going anyway to see the Georgia O’Keeffe show, I requested permission to take photos in the attic and was thrilled when I was granted permission.  So this is a rare glimpse of a truly stunning collection. My thanks to the publicity office at Reynolda.

13 Comments

Filed under Museums

13 responses to “Reynolda House Costume Collection

  1. Delighted to take this special tour. How nice for you that they let you take photographs!

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  2. All of these dresses are lovely! I wish I had them all! I should try sewing one of them sometime.
    ~ Megan Joy

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  3. Reynolda House is really a special place. It had opened as an art museum shortly before I started college at Wake Forest (it belongs to the university as you know) and I spent many happy hours there in art history classes and on the grounds. A couple years ago, my husband and I made a marathon weekend trip down to Reynolda House from our home here in Pennsylvania to see the George Catlin exhibit. While we were there we saw the costume and toy collection you have written about here. Thanks for the memories!

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  4. Considering the amount of time it would have taken a “dressmaker and finishing ” staff to sew these lovely dresses makes me wonder what the rest of her life / married / social consisted of?! Most heiress’s -hobby or not – with unlimited funds would have enjoyed the shopping and wearing of couture . The exquisite detail work is wonderful.

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    • After she married, I doubt very greatly that she had time for sewing. As she had, as you said, unlimited funds with which to but clothes. There is also an very early Chanel sequinned shawl in the collection, so lots of couture.

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  5. P S Lizzie, Isn’t interesting how old chestnuts like “You are who/what one wears” come into mind?

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  6. Wonderful post. Thank you!

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  7. Wow! I love the detail on these garments, and, yes, that cape is exceptional! Easy to see why it was your favorite!

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