Overviews of recent exhibits at the Darien Historical Society – for a complete listing of photos, please visit the Collections page. Drawings by Babs White, Curator.


October 4, 2019 - January 22, 2020

As America was recovering from the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution was transforming the country from an agrarian-rural society to an industrial-urban nation. Expansion of railroads, textile manufacturing, coal mining, iron and steel production – all led to the development of specially powered machinery for mass production. 

A modern American economy emerged. Industrial leaders and financiers including Vanderbilt (Railroad), Carnegie (Steel), J.P. Morgan (Banking), Rockefeller (Oil), and Ford (Auto), all became incredibly wealthy, lived in palatial mansions and indulged in an opulent lifestyle. Mark Twain called it "The Gilded Age, glitter on top, corruption underneath." For the many social commitments of the Gilded Age, women required a whirl of dressing and redressing. From promenades to receptions to garden parties and tea, they returned home for a brief interval to remove their corsets and retire to the boudoir before partying again. 


With increasing interest in sports and other summer pastimes, the Gilded Ages set favored Newport. The built "summer cottages" (mansions) on Bellevue Avenue and sponsored daily carriage promenades. The arrival of wealthy New Yorkers brought new social standards and created a constant party atmosphere. There were lavish balls, house parties, picnics, teas and regattas; and leisure time was spent with friends at exclusive golf, yacht and tennis clubs and, of course, at private Bailey's Beach.

Wealthy and pampered wives and daughters followed social customs and changed clothes to suit each occasion. Women accompanied their husbands on business trips to Paris and New York stores such as Macy's, Bloomingdales, and Lord & Taylor's produced copies from Parisian toiles. 

Fancy Dress Costume Ball

The Gilded Age was marked by rapid economic growth. Many corporate captains came to New York and built large mansions on Fifth Avenue. "The Knickerbockers" (so-called old guard) took exception to their arrival and determined that they would not succeed in breaking into their set. Mrs. Caroline Schermerhorn Astor (the Mrs. Astor) compiled a list of 400 acceptable socialites (no Nouveaux Riches on this exclusive list.) Four hundred was the capacity of her ballroom.

In 1883 Alva Vanderbilt (Mrs. Wm. K.), who was not included on the "The 400 List," planned a Fancy Dress Costume Ball in her new mansion on Fifth Avenue. She invited 1,200 guests, and one family's name was absent from the invitation list – the Astors. Mrs. Astor's daughter, Carrie, did not receive an invitation, and she was inconsolable. Mrs. Astor was finally forced to send her official "carte de visite" to Mrs. Vanderbilt. The Astors attended the Ball and the Vanderbilts were officially included in "Society."

The costumes at the Ball were extraordinary! They featured beautiful details, such as appliqued pearls and brilliants and were inspired by history, the Orient and other styles. The costume of Alice (Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II) was called "Spirit of Electricity," and was designed by Worth. She carried a torch light powered by a battery hidden in her skirt. Guests arrived at 10 pm, danced the Quadrille until 2 am when dinner was served. Fancy Dress Costume Balls were also popular in England. Chatsworth hosted a ball for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897.

Our collection of ball gown was donated by Darien owners. We do not know which ball they attended, but they are impressive treasures all!!! 



April 27, 2018 - August 2018

Objects of enchantment and delight are the inspiration for the exhibit, “Treasures of the Costume Collection – 1740 – 1930.” Curated by Babs White and members of the Costume Committee, the exhibit served as a centerpiece for several lunch receptions and lectures throughout the spring.

“What makes a treasure? It may be a period piece in remarkably good condition for its age, or it may express devotion to perfection by an Haute Couture designer,” said White, who has curated the Society’s costume collection for over 40 years. “Or, it could simply have a unique human story connected to it.”

Spanning from an 18th century handmade silk dress with delicate matching shoes to a drop-waist 1930s dress with matching shoes, purse and cloche, the exhibit also features smaller items such as delicate fans, intricately beaded purses and tasseled shawls.

The oldest dress in the collection was handmade about 1740 in a style called "saque back" with pleats from shoulder to hemline forming a train. The silk fabric was probably imported from Spittalfields, London. Eventually it was carefully put away for the next generation. When that time came (about 1780), it was too small. Fortuneately there was enough fabric to alter the dress into a Robe à l'Anglaise style with an open skirt and quilted petticoat. There was even enough fabric to cover the shoes!

Before the 19th century, both shoes were made without distinction (left or right). 
They were known as "straights." Calèche bonnet made of silk shirred over reed or whalebone hoops. 
The wearer could protect her elaborate hairstyle (or wig) or she could collapse the Calèche into a box for storage or for travel.

These two dresses (c. 1840) from the exhibit pictured here are admired for their remarkable condition and style. Of patterned silks, these costumes required many petticoats to achieve the fashionable tea-cozy effect. The sleeves, typical of the period, are full at the elbow, drawn in with tucks at the wrist.

By the early 19th century, shawls had become an essential fashion accessory. A shawl in the collection is called turnover. When folded diagonally, it displays two upright border corners at once, showing double the amount of pattern. Originally woven in the mountains of Kashmir, the Kashmir shawl challenged European manufacturers to solve problems adapting existing looms to weave Indian style patterns.

Although fans were used in ancient times, their use reached the greatest popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries.  In addition to folded paper, the "leaf" of a fan was made of vellum, lace, sequined netting and embroidered silk. The "sticks" of wood or pierced ivory, were also made from tortoise and mother-of-pearl. They serve as examples of skilled chraftsmanship, many illustrating classical mythology and pastoral scenes. A fan was also used as a basic communication device through coded signals known as the "Language of the Fan":
  • Close to the right cheek – "yes"
  • Open just below the eyes – "I love you"
  • Closed and tapped to the temples – "You are mad"
A pastoral fan in the collection is unusual because of the mirror on the guard stick "upon which a lady could discretely observe her young lover."

One particularly superb treasure pictured below is a bridal collection complete with a wedding dress dating from 1883 (#423), worn by a member of the Albro family. The dress features a beautifully designed panel of pearls and bugle beads. A peignoir and complete lingerie trousseau of another bride of the same period is trimmed with lace and satin bows. Many pieces are monogrammed.

This silk dress with its matching cloche, handbag and shoes has a marvelous scalloped piping on the skirt, hemline and sleeves and neck. The outfit was worn to the Yale-Harvard boat races in New London, CT in 1929 by Bertha Mather McPherson, a longtime resident of Darien and a strong supporter of the Darien Historical Society. She lived at the Mather Homestead on Stephen Mather Road.

These are just a few of the treasures of the Darien Historic Dress collection. With over 3,000 items, the Darien Historical Society will have lots more to show visitors in future exhibitions.



April 21, 2017 - August 2017

In keeping with its mission to tell the ongoing story of “costume”, one of history’s most tangible artifacts, the Darien Historical Society is presenting designer and ready-to- wear styles that existed during and after World War II. Mannequins on the Runway, Haute Couture and Contemporary Designs of the 20th Century highlights five decades of fashion with designer outfits from the 1940s through the 1990s. It follows the history of prêt-à-porter, or ready-to- wear, as it largely replaced haute couture in the fashion industry. 

Babs White, Costume Curator
Curator of the show, Babs White, set up the exhibit to mimic a 20th century fashion show, with mannequins lined up as if on the runway. White, who has her own 47-year history with the Darien Historical Society as its costume curator, arranged the fashions chronologically, beginning with a 1947 design by Christian Dior. She commented, “At the end of World War II, women longed to replace fashion’s stiff, square shoulders and straight lines. Dior’s more romantic look took the fashion world by storm.” Dior’s success allowed Paris to reassert its world leadership of haute couture following its decline during the war. 

Dior eventually commissioned his designs to be produced abroad as ready-to-wear lines in the 1950s and Yves Saint Laurent followed suit with his “Rive Gauche” designs. In the 60s, the charm and elegant style of Jackie Kennedy was greatly admired and copied, and Sophie of Saks and Elizabeth Arden, both represented in the exhibit, produced designs in New York. By the mid- 60s, fashion began to focus on youth, their music, and their “free-wheeling” attitude, producing the most potent symbol of the 60s scene, the miniskirt, also on display.

Designs by Sophie of Saks, Harvey Berin, and Elizabeth Arden 
Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta creations reflect the bold fabrics of the 1980s, which also heralded the look of big shoulders and giant sleeves. The Reagan administration signaled the return of formality, and Adolfo and Ungaro fashions mirror the 90s, an era in which ready-to- wear had become dominant. In keeping with a typical fashion show of the 20th century, the exhibit concludes with a bridal gown: a 1983 design by Carolina Herrera, socialite and longtime fixture on the best-dressed list. 

Dress designed by Emilio Pucci



October 16, 2015 - February 2016

For centuries, women have bowed to the tyranny of fashion. For the sake of youth and beauty, they have endured the discomforts of understructures to achieve a fashionable, but artificial, silhouette.

After the turmoil of the French Revolution, there were new values, the mood was anti- aristocracy. Stiff corsets, panniers and stomachers for court dress were outmoded. Inspired by interest in ancient Greece and Rome, fashion produced a neoclassical design: a simple white muslin dress with a high waistline and slim skirt. A softer corset of corded cotton was worn – if at all!

By the 1820s, the tight corset with whalebone was back, the waistline returned to normal and the skirt was full and bell-shaped. Women wore horsehair and several heavily starched petticoats to achieve this bell shape. This burdensome arrangement was relieved when, in 1856, the lightweight cage crinoline was introduced. It was made of steel hoops held by linen tapes.

As the cage crinoline flattened in front, excess fabric was drawn to the back to form a bustle. With technical advances, especially the sewing machine, dressmakers were able to lavish heavy folds, pleatings and ruffles on their bustle designs.

During the 1870s and 1880s, there were many types of understructures – corsets, crinolines, bustles. Each one was designed to support the various styles of the period.

By 1890, the bustle and the crinoline were gone – but not the corset! Now the restrictive corset created an hourglass silhouette and wasp waist.

After the turn of the century, a new “health corset” was produced. It was said “to make breathing easier.” It pushed the bosom forward and the hips back to form an S - curve, a straight front and a tiny waist.

To the fashionable woman of the 19th century, a tightly-laced corset was a necessity. It provided good back support and followed the silhouette of the day. Women persisted in wearing corsets because corseting indicated social status, self -discipline and style.

Not everyone approved. There were numerous dress reform movements. Doctors and journalists decried tightly–laced corsets that damaged internal organs and general health.

The dress reform movements failed to enact widespread change, but with time, and with women’s political and social advances and the increasing popularity of outdoor sports, the artificial understructures of the 19th century were finally abandoned.

Perhaps more decisive than any force was a radical new design by the French designer, Paul Poiret. Inspired by the neoclassical style of one hundred years earlier, it featured the same high waist and slim skirt. Poiret claimed it enabled women to abandon the corset for a more natural silhouette. As women moved into the next century, free of restrictive understructures, they found other means to conform to the ideal of ever changing style and beauty.
In addition to restrictive corsets, there were many types of bustles designed to support various styles of the period (c. 1869 - 1890). With the invention of the sewing machine, one of the most important technical advances of the Industrial Revolution, dressmakers could lavish fabric folds, pleatings, ruffles, and trims on the bustle.
Women required help for daily dressing. First the chemise and
split drawers, then the corset followed by the cage crinoline and petticoat. (c. 1856)
The fashion from 1820 - 1856 now required a restrictive corset and
a full bell-shaped skirt. Several horsehair and starched petticoats were needed to achieve this silhouette.



April 23, 2013 through October 2014

Two Piece Silk Satin Dress - Skirt panel jeweled with pearls and bugle beads, bustle and court train edged with self -pleating. The bride, Wealthy Albro, married Richard Lewis in 1883.
Some bridal customs began in ancient times, others developed in the Victorian period. Centuries ago the bride wore a veil to avoid evil spirits. If the marriage was pre-arranged, the groom did not see the bride’s face until she lifted the veil after the ceremony.

At the time of the Great Plague in London in the 17th century, the bride’s bouquet was aromatic with garlic and dill to ward off the stench of illness and death.  The color blue stood for faithfulness, so the bride wore a blue garter and included blue flowers in her bouquet. A sixpence in her shoe stood for wealth.  The ancient tradition of orange blossoms symbolizes purity. Queen Victoria wore a wreath of orange blossoms at her wedding. Wax orange blossoms, popular in Victorian times, are now collector’s items.

In the twenties we saw less formal weddings. There were elopements with a Justice of the Peace performing the ceremony.  By the 1950s weddings again became more formal. We remember the elaborate first weddings of Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Kennedy.

Even in the 19th century, brides did not always wear white, many chose to wear their “Sunday Best”.  Queen Victoria, however, for her marriage to Prince Albert in 1840, wore a white gown of Spittlefields silk trimmed with English-made Honiton lace. It was her effort to support British industry.  Eugénie wore white velvet when she married Napoleon III in 1853. Together these Royals helped popularize the trend towards bridal white.

The invention of the sewing machine and other advances in production techniques were important factors in the development of the Industrial Revolution. Costumes abounded with trimmings, pleatings and voluminous folds of fabrics. The middle class could now afford to hire caterers and florists for the wedding celebration of their very special bride. That marked the beginning of the wedding industry of today.

From the mid 19th century until the early 20th century, the Fashion Story is the development and decline of the cage crinoline (hoop skirt), the bustle and the corset.  The cage crinoline began to disappear when the front flattened and skirt fabric was drawn up in back. This produced a soft bustle. The bustle continued through the 1870s and 80s, interrupted only briefly by the tightly-corseted cuirasse bodice and Princesse silhouette. The bustle in its most extreme shape appeared in the 1880s. It extended from the small of the back horizontally causing some critics to compare it to walking upholstery.

In 1890, the bustle disappeared and fashion focused on sleeves, a tiny corseted wasp waist, and flared skirt – the “hour glass” silhouette. The puffed sleeves grew to enormous size in 1896, echoing the opulence of the Gilded Age.

Another change in focus at the turn of the century was the new Health Corset “designed to make breathing easier.” It thrust the bosom forward and hips back, producing an s-curve shape.

This corset continued as the requirement of fashionable ladies until 1908 when the French designer, Paul Poiret, introduced a radical new silhouette: a high empire waist and slim column-like skirt. This enabled women to abandon the restrictive corsets they had endured for centuries – a welcome relief.

And so, we see ever-changing fashion transformed from hoop skirts, bustles and corsets, through World War I, the twenties and World War II up to the romantic lines of the 50s – with hoops and crinolines all over again!



October 14, 2012 through March 3, 2013

When F. Scott Fitzgerald coined the term “Jazz Age” he was probably referring to many aspects of it. He meant prosperity, a booming stock market, Prohibition and bootlegging. He meant new freedom for women in the workforce, replacing young men who fought in World War I. He also probably meant new technologies, like the automobile and radio, which were propelling Americans into the modern age. Most of all he was referring to the Flapper, the young woman who threw off the buttoned-up morals of her elders, determined to banish thoughts of World War I - and have fun!

Drinking, dancing, smoking, having sex and wearing make-up ... all described the Flapper. The 1927 introduction of the talkies (movies with sound), featuring stars like Greta Garbo and Gloria Swanson, strengthened the Flapper's enthusiastic quest for 'the new.'

Fashion swept into the modern age offering designs for the flat, boyish silhouette: bare arms, low waists, short skirts, without the bonds of corsets. In 1927, skirts were shortest – just below the knee. Then fashion, ever changing with the times, began to look for ways to bring the skirt length down! The cosmetic industry was also flourishing. Elizabeth Arden and others supplied make-up for stylish red “cupid bow” lips and kohl-blackened eyes.

Darien residents were not exempt from the good times. At clubs, like Tokeneke and Ballast Reef, there were regular beachside Saturday night dances and costume parties – all for fun! 

Several new art styles were developing in the twenties. In 1922, the British archaeologist, Howard Carter, discovered the tomb of the ancient King Tutankhamen. The treasures found in the tomb, such as jewelry, murals and hieroglyphics, greatly influenced designers of decorative arts, textiles, architecture – even hairstyles and beauty products. There was a rage for "Egyptomania!" In 1925, Paris presented an exposition of modern industrial and decorative arts and fashion. It was to display and celebrate designs influenced by avant-garde movements, such as Cubism, Futurism and the Bauhaus. Geometric shapes, zig zags and sunbursts developed to characterize this distinctive modern style called “Art Deco”. 

Victorians were required to wear black while in mourning, with rules determining the type of fabric, kinds of trim and the length of term. In the early 1900s, designers, such as Paul Poiret, were inspired by “Orientalism,” which favored exotic colors and fabrics. Although that style continued in the “Jazz Age”, black became a new symbol of chic and sophistication.

Chanel was the outstanding revolutionary talent of the age. She created new fashion concepts. In 1926, Chanel introduced “the Little Black Dress” with simple lines in silks for evening, and in wool for daytime. In 1925, she designed the famous Chanel suit. It was trimmed with braid and worn with large quantities of costume jewelry to complete the elegant Chanel look which has endured up to today.

The couturière, Jeanne Lanvin, was working in Paris a decade before Chanel. In 1923, she designed an alternative silhouette called “ Robe de Style” . It had the same bare arms and low waist, but a full skirt inspired by the 18th century French Court. This provided a romantic design for women who preferred something other than the current “hard chic”.

When we hear Jazz music, we start tapping to its syncopated, happy beat. Uniquely American, Jazz began with informal groups in New Orleans. By the 1920s, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Bix Beiderbecke, as well as George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Paul Whiteman were stars. In cabarets, underground clubs, on Broadway, also in Paris, Jazz music became a symbol of the twenties. The phonograph and newly popular radio played the songs and everyone learned to dance "the Charleston" and "the Black Bottom."

Enthusiastic applause was led by (of course) the Flapper and her Joe College boyfriend. It reflected their carefree attitude: nothing was too daring as long as it was new, young and fun! So they cropped their hair, rouged their lips and danced with reckless abandon as if there was no tomorrow ... and then tomorrow came... and the party was over. 



October 16, 2011 through January 27, 2012

The periods we call the Gilded Age in New York, the Edwardian Era in London, and La Belle Époque in Paris dominated a thriving art and design community, attracting young artists as they developed many diverse strains of modernism with an explosion of creativity as never before.

The French designer, Paul Poiret, apprenticed at Worth and Doucet and opened his own salon in 1903. He was so innovative and original, that he became the leading designer of his day and was called "Le Magnifique." He was an aggressive entrepreneur and art collector; he counted Picasso, Leger and Matisse as his friends. Raoul Dufy designed moderne textiles for him. Prominent fashion artists created beautiful portfolios of his designs for his most elite clients, including Isadora Duncan, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and Irene Castle. In 1908, Poiret introduced a radical new silhouette – a high waist and slim column-like skirt. This change enabled women to abandon the restrictive corsets they had endured for many centuries. It was a welcome transformation!

In 1910, Sergei Diaghilev brought the Ballets Russes to Paris to dance "Schéhérazade." All of Paris was enchanted and embraced a new orientalist style: bright colors, exotic feathers, crystal beads and tassels, draped tunics and even turbans and harem pants! Inspired by this exuberance, Poiret followed with an elaborate Persian Fête: "The Thousand and Second Night." It was the talk of Paris! Interested in marketing all aspects of design, Poiret established an interior design studio and also produced a line of perfume. He believed in a total lifestyle – almost like the Ralph Lauren of his day!

World War I was declared in 1914. The French government regarded support of the couture industry to be essential. It focused on the United States as its best customer. American department stores had already established buying offices in Paris and presented seasonal showings of French couture. Custom salons imported couture through import agents. Wealthy clients from Westchester and Fairfield counties were able to buy original designs as well as Paris-inspired custom-made couture in New York and other American cities. Ready-to-wear was becoming more firmly established, and there were even patterns for the home sewer.

America entered the war in 1917. By this time, skirts had become shorter and fuller; darker colors reflected the gravity of war. Women were needed in war service and lavish dressing seemed inappropriate. Clothing also changed with women's evolving roles in modern society. Women drove cars, had jobs, played golf and tennis, enjoyed the movies and ballroom dances. They would soon win the right to vote.

Now we've seen fashion transformed from La Belle Époque to Moderne. It was a transformation that revolutionized the history of fashion. But fashion is ever-changing; and so, by 1920, it was ready to move onto another new style and into the renowned "Jazz Age."



September 12, 2010 through October 2011

In the 1850s the American middle class was experiencing increasing prosperity and had more leisure time. Clothes were elaborate and women struggled under the weight of several petticoats to achieve a beehive silhouette. In 1856 the invention of the “cage crinoline,” made of steel hoops hung by tapes from the waist, represented a liberating change. That same year, Charles Frederick Worth, an Englishman, opened a salon in Paris and established the first Haute Couture house.

In 1867 American businessmen, accompanied by their wives, attended the International Exposition in Paris and returned with trunks full of French treasures. American shops, recognizing the popularity of French products, imported dresses, fabrics, laces, and ribbons. Publications such as Godey’s Lady’s Book and the new Harper’s Bazaar inspired clever American dressmakers.

The Nineteenth Century woman needed a variety of costumes for visiting, dinners, receptions, and balls. She also needed clothes for traveling and for new pastimes, such as lawn tennis, bicycling, bathing, and skating. Accessories completed the costume and a corset, to define the current silhouette, was always a necessity.

By the early 1870s the sewing machine was in common use and newly discovered aniline dyes produced highly colorful fabrics. Trimmings abounded with ribbons, fine laces, and flounces and the crinoline gave way to the bustle and train.

Almost as a reaction to this excess, in 1874 fashion introduced the cuirasse bodice, long-waisted and tightly molded to the figure. Inner tapes and construction made walking difficult, inviting criticism from many sides, including the Aesthetic and Rational Dress adherents, whose clothes were looser and worn without corset, boning, or padding.

By 1887, in its final years, the bustle had another new form. It extended horizontally from the small of the back and was supported by an intricate system of tapes, great poufs of fabric and a metal coil device attached to the waist. Trains disappeared, but heavy fabrics and the weight of the structures still limited walking.


The year 1890 marked the end of the bustle. Skirts were flared and graceful, many extending into a train. Emphasis shifted to sleeves, which expanded to maximum size from 1894 to 1896. It was an
age of ostentation and extravagance: The Gilded Age.

In the early 1900s a new silhouette was achieved by a corset that forced the body into a pronounced 
s-curve - the bust thrust forward, hips back. Once again opulence of fabric and trimmings prevailed. Manufacturing advances made the latest styles available to a broader audience. The popularity of sports, especially bicycling, required appropriate clothing. These youthful styles were personified by the ideal American type: The Gibson Girl.