So it all started with this dress…
Now I had to make some thing out of it and convince a panel of scholars this topic – this idea – could be more than an idea…more than a pretty dress!
Here’s what I knew or believed to be true:
- KCB was the wife of Clifton Rodes Breckinridge.
- President Grover Cleveland appointed Clifton Rodes as minister to Russia in 1893/1894.
- The dress was worn by KCB to the coronation of Nicholas and Alexandra of Russia in 1896.
- The dress was a Worth design.
That’s not a lot! And this isn’t just a simple research paper, people! We’re talking Master’s Thesis. Scholarly work. Big picture. Change the course of scholarship for your generation.
Ok the change of the course of scholarship wasn’t very realistic. But that’s how it felt at the time. You find this thing you are in love with and you need to figure out how to structure your seminal career defining work (thus far) around it. You never know what you’re going to uncover! I bet Catherine Clinton, Drew Gilpin Faust or Anne Firor Scoot didn’t think they were going to change history when they started either!
Ok back to the dress! Because I worked at the Old State House Museum (OSH), I had a chance to talk to the textile conservator. This is fall 1999 or winter 2000. The dress had come back from the conservator (Polly Willman in Arlington, VA). She shared with me her notes and observations of the interior and exterior of the gown. She talked about the petersham and the construction of the dress.
Here’s what I learned…
- The dress ISN’T a Worth dress.
- The petersham signs the dress as Redfern.
- Willman believed the dress had been made for a much larger busted woman and altered because the lining was “poorly aligned with the outer bodice” and the neckline “seemed to have been rather crudely refitted/made smaller.”
Let me explain.
- Charles Fredirick Worth was the premier designer in the 19th century. Haute couture exists because of Worth. So if the Breckinridge gown was in fact a Worth, it would be a HUGE detail. That’s like having a Faberge egg or the Hope Diamond in your collection.
- A petersham is the dressmakers or designers way of signing their creations. It is a woven silk ribbon attached to the boning of the bodice.
- I think I have an explanation for the larger size, the poor alignment of the outer bodice and the crudely refit neckline. More on that in a few weeks.
Still not much! I would need to read letters. Ok to reading letters would require a trip to Washington, DC and the Library of Congress. And it wasn’t in the budget at the time so I’d figure out this Redfern guy. Easy right?
It was like Redfern didn’t exist or wasn’t significant enough to be mentioned by fashion historians. You see it wasn’t like now – Google and all! Search for Redfern in Netscape (remember that?) in 2000 and you got nothing. Nada! Zilch! Apparently I’m researching a fashion designer know one ever heard of! I learned that there was a aviator and baseball player named Redfern! And a lot of information about the saddest movie ever – Where the Redfern Grows!
Gonna have to go to the library! Start with secondary sources. I’ll let you in on a little secret! Historians love a good index! Cuts down on the reading! So I looked through every index of every fashion history in the University of Arkansas at Little Rock library and the Central Arkansas Library System. Looking for the name Redfern.
And then it happened! In Jane Ashelford’s The Art of Dress: Clothes and Society 1500-1914 I found my first Redfern in an index of a fashion book! Ashelford refers to Paul Poiret, an associate of Worth and a designer in his own right, and his list of “great Parisian couture houses of the 1890s.” Maison Redfern made the cut – they were on the list! This is my first bite that Redfern is more significant than just some dressmaker. But Poiret’s list was just a mention of the house and nothing else. It was a like a grocery list of fashion designers. I needed more!
Another historian fake! Look at another historian footnotes or endnotes for other sources and go to those. See what else they have to say! The history you are reading might have a little information about a subject you are interested in but their sources might have more. Jane Ashelford’s The Art of Dress: Clothes and Society 1500-1914 cited Georgina O’Hara Callan’s The Thames and Hudson Dictionary of Fashion and Fashion Designers (first published 1986) and Charlotte Mankey Calasibetta’s Fairchild’s Dictionary of Fashion (first published 1975). Both had entries on John Redfern. Dates of activity. That he was English. Isle of Wight. Tailor. Sports clothes. Appointed dressmaker of Queen Victoria. Finally something more than a bite!
This is how I got started but there was so much more to learn about Redfern. And there is more information on the internet now then there was then! (DUH!) But not much. I mean if you google Redfern or Redfern and Sons or John Redfern or Redfern tailor, you get a lot of great pictures of great gowns and sportswear but the information about the man/the designer is just about the same. 1853-1929. English. Isle of Wight. Tailor. Sports clothes. Appointed dressmaker of Queen Victoria.
Maybe some new primary research is in order. Victoria & Albert perhaps??? Kyoto???