What happened to all those once-worn Worth gowns?


– Good evening. I’m staying tonight in a
little hotel in the Cotswolds, and I’ve found a very interesting book. So, I’m in the library right now, The Manor House Hotel in Moreton-in-Marsh, which is a 16th century, sort of, coaching inn type of place. And I’m in the library, which you can see the
bookshelves behind me, and it’s a rather nice
fire burning over here. But this library is full of, it’s the kind of library
you tend to get in a hotel, which is full of a sort of
random collection of old books, and amongst them, I found this one. Actually, this was in my room, actually, but I am in the library. It’s called “Hedingham Harvest.” It’s Victorian family
life in rural England. And this book was written in 1977 by a guy who was born in 1917, and he’s relating the memories of his aunts and uncles and grandparents of what it was like
growing up in Lincolnshire in the 19th century. So, this is, like, oral
history of what life was like for working classes at that time. So, I’m reading about
rural Lincolnshire life, and what do you know,
Worth gets a mention. And it turns out, we find out in here what happened to some of
the Worth evening gowns. I mean, Worth was churning out hundreds and hundreds
and hundreds of gowns, and we see some of them in museums, but you kind of wonder
what happened to them all, considering there was so many of them. So, it turns out this
character in the family, so, amongst all the stories of, like, blacksmiths and farmers, and, you know, having to
duff your cap to the duke and all of that, it turns out that there
is a character in here called Kate Fisher, who
was a great entrepreneur. And she started her career as a stewardess serving the first class passengers on the liners going to New York,
from Liverpool to New York. And she just happened to be the stewardess who was put in charge of
pleasing the Vanderbilts. So, she developed this great in with the Vanderbilts, and much later on, I mean,
there’s a whole story here, she developed a whole range of hair tonics and shampoos and things, and opened beauty parlours. But there came a point where, I’ve lost my page now, where she would come back to Lincolnshire to her poorer relatives, and, darn it, I had the page a minute ago. Here we go: “The Vanderbilt connection “benefited the Fisher
children as well as Aunt Kate. “All the ladies of the
millionaire household “wore their clothes only once or twice “before discarding them, “so Kate bought them cheaply secondhand, “and dispatched them in crates “to her impecunious relatives.” So, here we’re finding
out, I had a vague idea that these wealthy women were
giving their Worth dresses to their ladies maids or
whatever, but I had no, I’d never seen an account
from the horse’s mouth of what happened to Worth dresses. So, the Vanderbilts were wearing
the dresses once or twice, and then Aunt Kate was
buying them secondhand, and bringing them back to Lincolnshire. So, we’ve got this great account here of. “My Aunt Matilda spoke of the excitement “when there was a message
from Kurt in the station “saying that a box from
America had arrived. “Grandfather got out the
waggon and went to fetch it. “Then it was opened on
the living room floor “to disclose dresses with Worth labels, “dozens of pairs of silk stockings, “white brocade dressing gowns, “white lace gloves, shoes,
coral beads, hats, furs, “and everything expensive. “Satins and silks predominated. “Almost all the skirts were
lined with stiff white taffeta.” Which we’ve seen on the oak leaf dress and the peacock dress. “That rustled whenever the wearer moved.” Which was one way of showing
your wealth and status. If your dresses were loud, which is why some of the
linings were infused with tin because it made them rustle. And that’s what’s making them shatter, and what’s destroying them so fast now. “Almost all skirts were lined
with stiff white taffeta.” “In one box, there were ostrich
feathers in such profusion, “that even the children
wearied of gorgeous blooms, “and they were given to the maid. “There were great heartburnings “when Grandmother distributed the spoils, “which arrived twice a year. “Grandfather looked on,
thinking of the smooth limbs “that had only recently given shape “to the gossamer stockings.” It’s 1977, male gaze, male gaze. “For herself, Grandmother kept little.” I like this sentence. “Grandmother kept little, “realising with her own failing good sense “that haute couture was
not for a farmer’s wife “who made her own butter
and went to chapel. “Although she was seen, on occasions, “riding in the trap in
a Vanderbilt blue cape “with a storm collar lined with white fur. “Mary was her mother’s
favourite, and this, “coupled with a certain
arrogance and force of temper, “enabled her to come off best, “and to go about the
village in superb clothes “that also fitted her. “On the other hand,
Henry had recollections “of Matilda appearing in Hedingham
church to his deep shame, “in the most flamboyant and
ill-fitting silks and satins, “entirely unbecoming to
their ageing surroundings, “but ever quality that put anything “the pit malverns could
muster well into the shade. “There was no question of
my grandmother spending time “on altering these clothes “or cutting them down
to fit her daughters.” Thank you. “It was one of her cardinal principals, “like refusing to draw fowls “that she would neither sew nor knit.” All the better for us. So, I just thought you
would like to hear that. It was lovely to hear an account of not only the wealthy women
who bought Worth dresses, but an account of what happened after they were worn once or
twice by the original owners. It seems like Kate, who worked for them, was sending huge crates of
Worth stuff twice a year back to Lincolnshire, and her poorer relatives were wearing them around this rural village. (chuckles) So, god only knows what
the neighbours thought. Or wearing them in church and looking completely out of place. So, I just thought that was really funny and you’d like to hear it. So, I hope that inspires you, and why don’t you do
some sewing this week.