left to right: Dress, pink silk and gold matelassé lamé by Madeleine Vionnet, Paris, 1928 (worn by Clemenine Miller Tangeman). Dress, silver and silk lamé, faux pearls, and rhinestones by Edward Molyneux, Paris, 1923 (worn by Elsie Irwin Sweeney). Dress, lavender silk and silver brocade, silver lace, and rhinestones by Edward Molyneux, Paris, 1923 (worn by Linnie Irwin Sweeney).
Many thanks to Andrea Lee, Masters of Arts in Art History, Indiana University, for research assistance.
Three women of the Irwin Sweeney Miller family were honored with invitations to the British court. Linnie Irwin Sweeney and her daughter Elsie were presented in 1923, and niece and granddaughter Clementine Miller (Tangeman) was presented in 1928. Just any old dress wouldn't do for such an occasion--Molyneux designed Linnie and Elsie's gowns, and Clementine chose the influential couturiere Madeleine Vionnet for her court dress.
Edward Molyneux, recommended by the British embassy, was born in London and opened his Paris couture house in 1919. Known for producing elegant, innovative, yet always-correct designs, Molyneux was a favorite of royals. He received his nickname “Captain” after being wounded and losing an eye in the First World War. Retiring in 1950 to concentrate on painting, Molyneux relaunched his fashion house in the 1960s, handing it off to his nephew in 1967. He passed away in 1970.
Madeleine Vionnet was the first designer to fully utilize the bias cut, producing liquid gowns that slipped over the head and had few, if any, closures. Her skillful cutting and draping directly on half-scale dress forms allowed Vionnet to work out her innovative designs, resulting in dresses that fit like a second skin, often incorporating geometric shapes, knots, pintucks, and appliqué details.
Historically, hierarchical cultures usually required certain styles of clothing to be worn while in the presence of the ruler. In Europe, this reinforced notions of social standing and fostered the silk and lace industries. Regulations about what was to be worn, according to the status of the wearer and dictated by the current ruler, provided guidance for those attending court occasions and for those who made the garments.
Formal, fashionable evening dress was required of those being presented. However, at some points in history (most notably in the late 18th century), court dress became fossilized, rigidly adhering to an earlier extreme style featuring wide gowns with panniers, at a time when the current silhouette was fairly narrow and columnar. The court dresses exhibited here display the interplay between tradition, innovation, and the modernity of the 20th century.
The women wear veils and the three white ostrich feathers which symbolized the Court of Saint James. Their glittering dresses are the height of stylish evening wear, and feature the rising hemlines of the 1920s which drastically altered women’s fashion. These narrow dresses include long trains which, especially on Clementine’s Vionnet dress on the left with the highest hemline, look somewhat out of place on the shorter, simpler gowns.
Eventually the court presentation ritual and formal court dress was eliminated, replaced by garden parties in the 1950s. The Queen of England now hosts at least three garden parties annually, which over 30,000 guests attend.
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