Le Colis de Trianon–Versailles Pre World War II at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Evening dress, 1925
House of Worth (French, 1858–1956)
Silk, glass, metallic threads
Gift of Mrs. Harrison Williams, Lady Mendl and Mrs. Ector Munn, 1946 (C.I.46.4.20a–c)

Charles Frederick Worth’s two sons, Jean-Philippe and Gaston, carried on the high standards of design and technique at the House of Worth following the designer’s death in 1895. By the 1920s, a completely different, slim boyish silhouette had emerged as the new fashion, as the simple shape of this dress illustrates. Constructed with a minimal amount of seaming and shaping, the chemise dress suggested the body was flat in front and back, with no discernible articulation of the chest, waist, or hips. The lavish ornament of this example, however, provides a clear link to earlier examples executed by Charles Frederick Worth. Side slits and the shortened hemline reveal glimpses of gold lamé. The use of this opulent fabric for both the underdress and lining of the train, as well as the intricate beadwork, recall gowns made by the House of Worth in the previous century.

Evening coat, 1935
Madame Grès (Alix Barton) (French, 1903–1993)
White silk brocade with polychrome birds and polychrome striped silk
Gift of Mrs. Harrison Williams, Lady Mendl, and Mrs. Ector Munn, 1946 (C.I.46.4.19a,b)

During the mid- to late 1930s, ethnic clothing traditions exerted a powerful influence on fashion. borrowed from a multiplicity of cultures, using elements from the cut of saris, dhotis, caftans, and kimonos. For this “Pagoda” dinner jacket, she drew inspiration from the jackets worn by Balinese dancers. Appropriately, it was made specifically for the Spanish dancer Argentina.

The lining revealed at sleeve cuffs and collar is the verso of the brocade with embroidered hummingbirds. The structure of the wired hoops that articulate the flare of the jacket is in marked contrast to the pliable shaping of cuffs and neckband, a shirred modified mandarin collar. Typical of Alix’s use of asymmetry for its poised disequilibrium, the jacket’s center front opening is shifted to the left of the body.

“Cocteau” Evening Jacket, Fall 1937
Elsa Schiaparelli (Italian, 1890–1973)
Linen, metallic foil, beads, paillettes

Purchase, Friends of The Costume Institute Gifts, 2009 (2009.421)

Elsa Schiaparelli was a well-born Italian designer who made her mark in Paris from the late 1920s to the 1950s. Her initial success was based on a trompe-l’oeil sweater with the illusion of a knotted cravat, but she quickly moved from designing knitwear to the establishment of a couture house, where she continued to play with whimsical Dada- and Surrealist-inflected conceits. Schiaparelli’s collaborations with artists resulted in some of the most renowned works of twentieth-century haute couture. A jacket with dresser drawers for pockets, her notorious “Shoe Hat,” and a provocative “Bug Necklace” came from her partnership with Salvador Dalí. An evening coat embroidered in a pattern that reads simultaneously as a vase and two confronting faces and this jacket, with its trompe-l’oeil profile, were products of her collaboration with Jean Cocteau. Although she is best remembered for these playful works, they appear to have been ordered by a limited number of clients, and most of the surviving examples are from Schiaparelli’s own collection. This jacket is therefore a particularly serendipitous discovery, having been only recently sold by the family of a client who was clearly enamored of the designer’s more assertive and signature work.

Evening ensemble, 1938
Elsa Schiaparelli (Italian, 1890–1973)
Ivory silk organza embroidered with metallic thread, purl, and rhinestones
Gift of Mrs. Harrison Williams, Lady Mendl, and Mrs. Ector Munn, 1946 (C.I.46.4.3a–e)

“A good fashion is a daring fashion, not a polite one.”

—Daisy Fellowes

According to Jean Cocteau, the Honorable Mrs. Reginald “Daisy” Fellowes “launched more fashions than any other woman in the world.” She was the supreme word in elegance, going beyond fashion to create a style of her own. She loathed the commonplace and enjoyed making other women look foolish. As Cecil Beaton explained, “At the races, while her rivals would be wearing enormous picture hats of chiffon or transparent straw that spouted fireworks of feathers, Daisy Fellowes might turn up hatless. The effect, of course, succeeded in making the others appear overdressed and slightly ridiculous.”

Daisy Fellowes was not an acquisitive clotheshorse and was known for wearing the same dress for day and evening. She wore this empire-line dress to at least two official functions: a reception given by the king and queen of England at the Palais de l’Élysée on July 19, 1938; and the court presentation of her daughter in March 1939.

Evening ensemble, 1939
Elsa Schiaparelli (Italian, 1890–1973)
Orange silk organza with metallic stripes and orange silk

Gift of Mrs. Harrison Williams, Lady Mendl, and Mrs. Ector Munn, 1946 (C.I.46.4.10a–c)

Fashion in the mid-1930s glorified styles of other cultures. Indian and Southeast Asian styles were particularly evident in the work of Elsa Schiaparelli. Vogue remarked that her “sari dresses” made women look like “Hindu princesses.”

This sari dress was worn by Madame Arturo Lopez-Willshaw, the great-niece of the supremely elegant Eugenia Errázuriz. Like her great-aunt, Madame Lopez-Wilshaw was a considerable force in the fashion world, particularly during the late 1930s. During the Phony War, when she and her husband moved from their house in Neuilly to the Ritz, Madame Lopez-Wilshaw’s Wednesday suppers became a well-known site of fashionability. Vogue explained, “At the first parties, Patricia Lopez wore a short afternoon dress, but, little by little, women arrived in long black sheaths, and now you definitely have to dress for dinner. This is part of the general discipline. Women must be attractive, and the signal of emulation is given. Nothing eccentric or fussy, but sound, refined taste. Long-sleeved dinner dresses, jewels, and smooth, curled hair.”

   Duchess of Windsor

Evening dress, ca. 1938
Mainbocher (American, 1890–1976)
Black silk taffeta embroidered with metallic thread, sequins, and beads
Gift of Mrs. Harrison Williams, Lady Mendl, and Mrs. Ector Munn, 1946 (C.I.46.4.1)

Cecil Beaton photographed the Duchess of Windsor wearing this dress for British Vogue in 1939. To highlight and complement the eighteenth-century silhouette of the gown, Beaton photographed the duchess seated in a Louis XV chair against a Piranesi backdrop. During the late 1930s, as a reaction against sociopolitical realities, fashion and the decorative arts were heavily influenced by period revivalism.

Cecil Beaton was the Duchess of Windsor’s official photographer and played an important role in constructing her public image. The pair first met in 1930, when the duchess was married to Ernest Simpson. Beaton’s initial impressions of Wallis Simpson were far from favorable, describing her as “brawny and raw-boned in her sapphire blue velvet.” On his next meeting, however, which took place in 1934, he found her appearance much changed: “I liked her immensely. I found her bright and witty, improved in looks, and chic.”

Evening dress, 1938
Madeleine Vionnet (French, 1876–1975)
Black silk satin and black silk net embroidered with black sequins
Gift of Mrs. Harrison Williams, Lady Mendl, and Mrs. Ector Munn, 1946 (C.I.46.4.4a–c)

In Jungian psychology, the appearance of black birds in dreams is considered a bad omen and allied to fear of misfortune. For the Romantics, they hovered over battlefields to feast on the bodies of the slain. As a chilling prelude to war, the birds on this dress swarm around the body of the wearer like ominous raptors. At the same time, they serve as criticism of the vanity and ostentation ofle beau monde. Like the bird who cries cras, cras (tomorrow, tomorrow), the black bird symbolizes those who are caught up in worldly pleasures.

Evening dress, 1938
Madeleine Vionnet (French, 1876–1975)
Silver lamé and ivory silk net
Gift of Mrs. Harrison Williams, Lady Mendl, and Mrs. Ector Munn, 1946 (C.I.46.4.24a,b)


“I’m not a beautiful woman. I’m nothing to look at, so the only thing I can do is dress better than anyone else.”

—Duchess of Windsor

The Duchess of Windsor lent two dresses to the exhibition Paris Openings (1940), including this ensemble by Madeleine Vionnet. Elegant, romantic, and feminine, it seems uncharacteristic of the duchess’ sober and somewhat severe fashion aesthetic. It also seems more revealing than her usual modest, discreet style. But as Danielle Porthault of Yves Saint Laurent commented, “Her Royal Highness’s style was sobriety by day and fantasy and originality at night.”


“Mrs. Harrison Williams was a chef d’oeuvre, breathing a rarefied air of mystery, like some undine or goddess from another world who yet chooses to dress in the height of fashionable conventionality.”

—Cecil Beaton

In December 1933, Chanel, Lanvin, Lucien Lelong, Vionnet, Balenciaga, Edward Molyneux, and Mainbocher named Mrs. Harrison Williams the “Best Dressed-Woman in the World.” Like Lady Mendl and the Duchess of Windsor, she possessed an inconspicuous elegance, which she achieved by choosing the clean and subdued lines of Vionnet and Balenciaga. Vogueobserved, “She never orders the ‘successes’ in a collection, but instead, the costume which is noticeable only on second glance.”

Mrs. Harrison Williams’ style and beauty have been immortalized in art, music, and literature. In “Ridin’ High,” Cole Porter sang: “What do I care if Mrs. Harrison Williams is the best dressed woman in town?” In Truman Capote’s Answered Prayers (1987), she was the model for the character Kate McCloud.

Evening dress, 1938
Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (French, 1883–1971)
Black silk net with polychrome sequins
Gift of Mrs. Harrison Williams, Lady Mendl, and Mrs. Ector Munn, 1946 (C.I.46.4.7a–c)

The decoration of sequined fireworks on this evening dress, which was worn by Countess Madeleine de Montgomery to Lady Mendl’s seventy-fifth birthday party in 1939, is a fitting climax to le beau monde of the 1930s. When Adolf Hitler declared that Germany was at war with Poland in September 1939, the glamorous era of the 1930s came to a close. The fireworks motif, executed in brilliantly colored sequins, takes on additional symbolic meaning since the dress was created and worn immediately prior to the start of World War II. The dress was part of a collection assembled and brought to New York by the donors and their friends and displayed in an exhibition to benefit the French war charities in 1940.

Evening dress, 1939
Mainbocher (American, 1890–1976)
Ivory silk chiffon embroidered with white and silver sequin butterflies and ivory silk taffeta
Gift of Mrs. Harrison Williams, Lady Mendl, and Mrs. Ector Munn, 1946 (C.I.46.4.2a–e)

“Lady Mendl was so successful that she became a living factory of chic.”

—Cecil Beaton

The artist Ludwig Bemelmans describes Lady Mendl typically descending to her famous parties wearing “one of her Mainbocher uniforms.” She wore this particular Mainbocher to her Circus Ball on July 1, 1939, at the Villa Trianon in Versailles. It was the last party of the season and the last before the outbreak of World War II. Lady Mendl believed in simplicity of dress. As she said, “I always take one thing off before leaving the house.” She also preferred neutral colors. When she saw the Parthenon for the first time, she exclaimed, “It’s beige! My favorite color!”

Lady Mendl was equally celebrated for her Sunday lunches. After moving to the Ritz during the Phony War (a lull in fighting that lasted from October 1939 to April 1940), her Sunday lunches continued to draw a lively crowd of artists, designers, diplomats, aristocrats, and movie stars. The difference, however, was that these lunches had a more political agenda—to raise money for “Le Colis de Trianon-Versailles.” Vogue noted, “Sometimes she gets as much as fifteen thousand francs in contributions.”

Evening dress, 1939
Jeanne Lanvin (French, 1867–1946)
Steel-gray silk taffeta embroidered with metallic sequins and pink beads

Gift of Mrs. Harrison Williams, Lady Mendl, and Mrs. Ector Munn, 1946 (C.I.46.4.18a,b)

This “Cyclone” evening dress by Jeanne Lanvin was worn by her daughter, the comtesse Jeanne de Polignac. According to Bettina Ballard, she was a “soft beauty” who belonged more to the intimacy of the private salon than to public places of entertainment. Lanvin’s spectacular creation was featured in the Museum’s exhibition Blithe Spirit: The Windsor Set (2002), and had not been shown in New York since its debut in 1940.


About jackikellum

Jacki Kellum is a Fine Artist, a Designer, and also a writer. For one of her graduate programs, she wrote her thesis on William Blake. Like Blake, much of Kellum's work is about childhood and lost innocence. Also like Blake, Kellum strives to both write and illustrate her work. .
This entry was posted in Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, Jean Lanvin, Le Colis de Trianon=Versailles, Madeline Vionnet, Mainbocher, Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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