A rare and beautiful evening gown is the subject of a display at The Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle until 10th June, taking visitors back one hundred years, to the aristocratic lifestyle of 1911, as portrayed in ITV’s Downton Abbey.

The dress was created by French fashion designer Madame Paquin, known for her modern and innovative designs. Credited with being the first female couturier, in the early 1900s she had a prestige equal to that of The House of Worth, clothing the wealthy elite.

It is a confection of silk chiffon, satin and net in ivory and black, embellished with beads and a bright pink silk velvet sash. The fine silk net is embroidered with black, opaque and white glass beads in an asymmetrical design. The full-length gown has a train and the inside waistband is labelled ‘Paquin Hiver 1911’, indicating it was from Paquin’s winter collection.

Paquin’s skill is seen not only in the cut and construction but also in the contrast of fabrics: the light reflecting beadwork against the vividly coloured velvet silk pile and the contrast between the matt black net and the sheen of the ivory satin skirt, where the pointed train of both fabrics cross to form a fish tail effect.

Such layers of rich fabrics embellished with bead embroidery are typical of the pre-war development of luxury evening wear, seen beautifully recreated in the first series of ITV’s Downton Abbey. Similar styled evening gowns were worn by Lady Grantham and her eldest daughter Mary, in Julian Fellowes’ much acclaimed period drama.

Paquin opened her salon in Paris on Rue de la Paix in 1891 and in 1897 at 93 Dover Street, London. She opened the London salon for the greater convenience of the British aristocracy, who were her clients. She was the first French couturier to found fashion houses abroad. An astute business woman, she opened houses in Buenos Aires and Madrid and was the first to promote her collections by touring live models in America.

The evening dress would have been exclusively made for the customer, following a series of lengthy fittings. It is thought to have been worn by Martha Sabrina Brinton, the daughter of John Brinton, the well-known carpet manufacturer. The family home was near Kidderminster, but by 1911, Martha Sabrina (“Patty”) had lived an independent life in London, having an apartment in Buckingham Gate. She was a woman of wealth and, according to her obituary, beauty.

The Christmas season of 1911–1912, the very season for which the Paquin dress was created, must have been a special time for Martha Sabrina Brinton. Her engagement was announced in February 1912 and the wedding in London, in the following July, was a grand occasion. The witnesses were Princess Helena Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein (a granddaughter of Queen Victoria) and The Marquis of Londonderry. A house party at Wynyard, Lord Londonderry’s country seat, was held ‘this week’ according to The Times on 27 December 1911. It is tantalising to wonder which social occasion this custom-made gown by Paquin, in ‘Hiver 1911’, might have been worn.

The dress is structurally complex and very fragile due to the weight of the beads on the silk net. This is the first time that it has been on public display since it was given to the Museum in 1963 as part of the Danesfort Collection, bequeathed by Martha Gordon (nee Brinton), through The National Art Collections Fund. Martha’s husband was Reverend James Geoffrey Gordon, who became Bishop of Jarrow. After his death Mrs Gordon lived in Durham City, until her death in 1962.

“The story about this dress and its wearer is totally fascinating,” said Joanna Hashagen, Keeper of Textiles. “It was always thought that this dress was worn by Martha’s mother-in-law, Lady Danesfort, but following a fair amount of detective work, we now feel that Martha was the right age and had the right figure, occasion, wealth and status to wear this fabulous dress.” 

Part of the Paquin archive is held by the Fashion Museum, Bath, whose curator, Rosemary Harden, will give a lecture in March 2012 at The Bowes Museum on this remarkable designer and the archive.

Madame Paquin, who died in 1936, was the first woman in her field to be awarded the Legion d’Honneur. She employed over 2,000 people and made the theatre costumes designed by Bakst and Iribe.

The Museum now offers a 6 month Admission Pass, giving a cost effective opportunity to make the most of all this fabulous building has to offer, including viewing this beautiful dress for the first time in almost 50 years.

Incredible value for money at only £12.00, the pass enables the buyer to make unlimited return visits to the Museum within that 6 month timeframe. Passes are available to purchase on the Museum’s website, or alternatively purchase on the day of your visit.

PAQUIN, WINTER 1911 – the centenary of an evening gown: The story behind a unique dress by Madame Paquin runs until 10 June 2012. The Bowes Museum, Café Bowes and Shop are open daily from 10am. A full programme of events and exhibitions is available by calling 01833 690606 or by viewing the website at www.thebowesmuseum.org.uk


Allison Graham

Allison is the Publisher of Eclipse Magazine. She loves going to the Races and is learning to bet (despite being officially the worst bettor in the History of the Universe), there's a lot more to learn...

Latest posts by Allison Graham (see all)

If you enjoyed this, try...