Ursula Karbacher
Textile Museum St Gallen and ICOM Costume Committee member

 

 

A highlight of the lace collection at the Textile Museum St. Gallen is a ball gown attributed to the Empress Eugénie. It is a two-piece dress in Alençon lace. It belongs to the collection John Jacoby (1869-1953), whose collection was acquired in 1955 (Inventory-number TMSG 3612).

Empress Eugénie de Montijo (1826-1920), wife of Napoleon III, appreciated Alençon lace very much as her idol was the fashionable Queen Marie Antoinette. In the history of costume, the period of Napoleon III is often referred to as the second rococo. Where and how Jacoby bought the dress is not known. In the inventory it is merely noted that Napoleon III “has purchased for 900 pounds a dress of Alençon lace for the Empress”. It also claims that 36 workers worked for 18 months on this dress. According to the inventory the dress can be dated to 1850. The proof that this dress actually belonged to the Empress has not yet been found.

 

Three dresses with rich Alençon lace owned by Eugenie are known from the literature:

First possibility: For the Universal Exhibition of 1851 in London, Maison Videcoq Simon (an Alençon lace factory) made a flounce of 48 cm width. This lace found its way for 22 000 francs into the dowry of the future Empress Eugénie. Because of the statement that 36 workers worked for 18 months, it might be the dress at the Textile Museum.

Second possibility: Another order for Alençon lace by the Empress is recorded by the Maison Videcoq Simon for the Universal Exhibition of 1855 in Paris. This time Eugénie ordered a flounce of 450 cm length and 100 cm width, a shawl collar and one sleeve set.

Third possibility: Alençon lace for the Paris Exhibition of 1867. Literature which does not indicate the source of the information tells that Eugenie is said to have worn to the opening of the Paris Exhibition of 1867, a dress designed by Charles Frederic Worth (1825-1895). It was worked “from Aloncon lace, lemon yellow Lyon silk and decorated with myosotis satin ribbons. As a great peculiarity Worth designed this dress to be worn without a crinoline.


Whether any of the three lace dresses mentioned in the literature is identical to the dress at the Textile Museum, is still unclear.

Eugenie could not wear the lace dress without a supportive undergarment of a woven fabric, which is not in the collection. Because it is missing, there are a variety of options when mounting the dress.  The material and color of the fabric as well as the actual length and effective width of the skirt, the cut of the top of the collar or its form remain uncertain. Different versions are possible.


The pattern of the fitted dress in 1981 is not known. It is different from the version from 1996. At that time the tips were mounted on a new yellow silk, based on the dress designed by Worth for the World Exhibition of 1867. For the exhibition "St Gall" the yellow pinafore dress was removed in 2011 and the top mounted with a film Melinex and a crinoline. The top side was correctly installed. In the two previous mounts the forepart was taken as the back part. In 2012, for the exhibition "Dentelle - quand la mode ne tient qu'à un fil" in Caen, the dress was again re-assembled. This time paintings of ladies dressed in ball gowns of the years 1853-1855 were used as guidelines.

 

Further reading

Ursula Karbacher : Imitation et réinterprétation du point d’Alençon à Saint-Gall. In: Dentelles, quand la mode ne tient qu’à un fil. Caen, 2012, p. 131-141

 

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