Lavish Albany fashion in the 1800s

Exhibit opens today with 45 dresses on display at Albany Institute
The ball gown at right was designed by Emile Pingat in 1867, silk faille and tulle trimmed with beads and seed pearls.
The ball gown at right was designed by Emile Pingat in 1867, silk faille and tulle trimmed with beads and seed pearls.

Queen Victoria wasn’t the only one dressed well during her reign. Across the pond, residents of upstate New York had a fashionable flair all their own. 

It’s a flair that’s on full display at the “Well-Dressed in Victorian Albany: 19th Century Fashion from the Albany Institute Collection,” at the Albany Institute of History and Art.

The exhibit, which opens today and runs until Feb. 19, includes special occasion garments, like the intricate wedding dress from 1842 as well as more day-to-day pieces, like the tartan-inspired parlor dresses from the 1850s. 

The exhibit is for the history buff as much as the fashionista, reflecting on many of the important technological and social developments of the time period. It also coincides with PBS’ “Victoria,” which began last year. It’s one of the highest-rated dramas on the station in nearly 20 years, and has played off the popularity of “Downton Abbey.”

“We want people to really see what the actual Victorians wore,” said curator Diane Shewchuk. 

The 45 dresses on display were all made and worn during Queen Victoria’s reign, from 1837 to 1901. Each reflects various influences and trends from her reign, from voluminous ball gowns to leg-mutton sleeves to plaid/tartan patterns. 

Shewchuk worked closely with The Costumer to give the gowns the correct silhouette on the mannequins, which often involved sewing the sort of undergarments worn in the Victorian era and repairing the garments.

The exhibit opens with a portrait and a few lavish dresses formerly owned by Mary Augusta Green De Camp Corning Banks, a wealthy Capital Region resident who was known for her impeccable, if not exotic, fashion sense. She had dresses made for her in France, designed by the House of Worth, Emile Pingat and others, that range from bright and simple to complex and strange. 

Then the collection shifts to wedding gowns, many of which are a satin pearl or white, as inspired by Queen Victoria’s wedding gown. The oldest piece in the collection is a pearl-colored satin wedding dress with embroidered silk flowers from 1842. The queen’s influence is seen again in the 1850s parlor section of the exhibit.  

“This is around the time that Queen Victoria acquires BalMoral Castle and starts to renovate it. So everybody starts to wear tartans and plaids. They don’t really care what they stand for, they just like plaid,” Shewchuk said, during a preview tour of the exhibit.  

Tartan-like prints are seen in the children’s wear and the ladies’ gowns alike in the parlor-like setting. 

On a more luxurious ballroom-like section, there’s a watermelon-colored ball gown that’s more extravagant than anything going down the modern runways. Seed pearls dot the trim and satin thread tops another intricate piece of the trim. It’s a subtle opulence in an otherwise ostentatious piece.

Shewchuk also brought out some of the more eccentric styles, with velvet leg of mutton sleeves, or lace trim with a corset-like plaid piece on the outside of the dress. 

“For a very short period of time in the mid-1890s, the leg of mutton sleeve is the key thing in American fashion.

The fact that these survived is amazing,” Shewchuk said.

There’s another piece that seems to be a shepherdess-like costume, that also shows off some of the more outrageous styles of the era.   

“I didn’t want to hide the craziness because couture can be crazy. It’s crazy today. So it just takes a confident person to wear [it],” Shewchuk said. 

“Well-Dressed” gives a rare look into the Institution’s costume collection, which spans more than 250 years and 4,000 garments and accessories worn by upstate New Yorkers. It’s been well over a decade since the Institute has curated an exhibit highlighting their costume collection and it could be another decade before the pieces are brought back out again. 

Well-Dressed in Victorian Albany
WHEN: Oct. 7 – Feb. 19. 2018
WHERE: Albany Institute of History and Art, 125 Washington Ave. Ext., Albany

Categories: Art, Entertainment

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