Hortense’s Dress

We are standing in a beautifully decorated room. It is the year 1929. The candlelight is flickering. We can hear the constant buzz of people talking, laughing, having a good time. People toast with champagne. What are they toasting? They are toasting themselves, this moment, this party. Their life is devoted to beauty and pleasure. We are in Florence, a city overflowing with cultural life and beautiful artworks. It is a pleasant summer night. Not too cool and not too hot. Just right. Villa La Pietra is filled with people, but it is not bursting. Always tasteful. The white linens on the table and the long thin candles speak of a sophisticated elegance. It is clear that the people who live here have a lot of money and know how to spend it. There is a tension in the room. An anticipation of something. Looking around at all of those smiling faces engaged in conversation, we notice that the hostess is not here yet. She is probably still upstairs, putting on perfume or touching up on makeup. Perhaps she is even finishing the last page of a chapter of a book she is currently reading. Whatever it was she is done with it now. She walks into the room and the tension slowly dissolves. It is as if the party is complete now. Everyone in the room has their eyes on the hostess. Her dress in particular.

The whole lower part of the dress is cut into what look to be leaves or flower petals, giving Hortense the air of being an exotic flower herself. A flower picked from a secret garden, mysterious, magical and free. She looks like a creature from a fairy tale.

Hortense is wearing a short, loose fitted dress that flows freely around her, giving her room to breathe, move and dance. The dress that is made of silk and metal lace net is covered in thousands of sequins and glass beads in silver, gold and a light cream tone that reflect the candlelight and the light from the chandeliers to give Hortense the appearance of being showered in diamonds. The sparkly sequins and glass beads are arranged in an intriguing intricate pattern, mimicking flower petals. They flow nicely with the shape of the body underneath the dress. The entire dress is about movement. The whole lower part of the dress is cut into what look to be leaves or flower petals, giving Hortense the air of being an exotic flower herself. A flower picked from a secret garden, mysterious, magical and free. She looks like a creature from a fairy tale. The sequined net dress is sleeveless except for net shoulder straps with a beautiful gold lame underdress and gold silk underskirt. The trim is made of cellulose nitrate sequins and glass beads. The lining is made of gold lame and lace and gold tulle. The dress has a round neckline and a V-shape in the back. Hortense looks youthful in this dress, playful and glamorous, yet elegant and sophisticated. The beauty of the dress is strong and immediately apparent, yet very subtle at the same time – an intriguing mixture. What more does a woman want than to be effortlessly striking without seeming to try too hard to achieve that effect?

Today the glamour and glitter are still there, unaffected by age, not muted but still sparkling in full vigor. Looking at the dress in photographs does not do its magnificence justice. It is meant to be worn; it is meant to be displayed. Even though “the picture of Hortense in print remains sadly one-dimensional; a petite well-groomed hostess… and purveyor of famous martini cocktails following afternoon tea”, through this dress Hortense is still with us. It allows us to just close our eyes, mentally take a glass of Hortense’s famous Martinis into our hand and be transported back into the “roaring 20s”.

“You need to think, judge, choose, dear reader, what is liked by your own innate taste, to the culture of your fantasy, you need to love Fashion as she is if it is in accordance with your own beauty and charm”Matilde Serao “La Moda del Giorno” (1911)

Hortense Mitchell was born on December 31 in 1871 in Alton Illinois, where she enjoyed a comfortable and privileged youth full of traveling, education and pleasure, after her father made his fortune as the founder of the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank. In 1903 she married Arthur Acton in London, moved to Italy and first rented and later purchased Villa La Pietra in 1907. Here she spent the rest of her life until 1962.  In 1929, when the dress in question was made, Hortense was 58. The Actons at Villa La Pietra would have been at the height of their lives in Florence, in the middle of amassing a huge art collection that consists of over 5500 items and establishing important connections and friendships. Hortense loved to host parties, receptions and performances and drew prestigious guests into her villa, including Winston Churchill, famous artists, dancers, writers, poets and art collectors, thus hosting the whole expatriate community living in Florence at the beginning of the 20th century. Harold Acton, Hortense’s son, remembers, “My parents welcomed half Florence to the villa”. The importance of Hortense with regard to the life at the villa is demonstrated by the fact that the first signs of decline of the height of beauty of Villa La Pietra was reported to have started around Hortense’s death in 1962. It seems as if this beautiful villa was mourning its most precious jewel, the woman who brought life, guests, children and art into the house. Her touch in the villa cannot be denied and her spirit is still very much present in Villa La Pietra today. In the hairbrushes incised with her initials that are still lying in her bathroom, in the mirror that she would have looked into to get ready for her guests and especially in the clothes and accessories that she commissioned for her popular parties.

In 1904 Hortense Acton wrote a letter to Frederick Stibbert, an Anglo-Florentine neighbor who ran in the same social circles as the Actons and must have been a frequent guest at their numerous parties. The letter provides us with important clues about Hortense and the way she thought of dress: “Dear Mr. Stibbert, It was most kind of you to think of me and let me take that beautiful book of costumes. The prints are extremely quaint and interesting and may help me out if my dressmaker has not found just what I need. I promise to take best care of the book and will return it within a week if you do not need it before. With thanks, and hoping to see you at the ball if not before. Believe me most sincerely yours, Hortense M. Acton”. The fact that she is going to see Stibbert for the next time at “a ball” also reiterates that their lives evolved around parties and social get-togethers. This short letter furthermore demonstrates the passion, effort, initiative and urgency that Hortense Acton puts into fashion and the fashioning of her own clothing. Hortense is a woman who knows “just” what she wants and needs. She also seems to have done her own research to contribute to the creation of her dresses, in case that her dressmakers do not give her exactly what she is looking for. Hortense loved books, she read a whole book every two days, and had a special interest in illustrated books. This shows that she was a very educated and visually oriented person who definitely must have had a lot of ideas about the design of her wardrobe. Hortense’s interest in fashion seems to fit with what Matilde Serao, the editor of the weekly Florentine Fashion newspaper “La Moda del Giorno” (1911), writes, “You need to think, judge, choose, dear reader, what is liked by your own innate taste, to the culture of your fantasy, you need to love Fashion as she is if it is in accordance with your own beauty and charm”. The dress in question seems to fit into this schema perfectly. If Hortense contributed ideas to its design, this would indeed reflect her own beauty and charm because the dress has a magical way of enchanting people, back then and even today.

The dress was made by Callot Soeurs (1895-1937), a Parisian fashion business run by three sisters. That they were known for the quality of their work and for precise details can clearly be seen in Hortense’s dress. In 1900 Hortense spent some time in Paris and visited the atelier of the Callot Soeurs, where she first commissioned about 20 haute couture dresses. Even though she commissioned dresses from other designers, as for instance by the Callot Soeurs’ biggest rival Paul Poiret, Hortense seems to have favored the Callot Soeurs, which is demonstrated by the number of gowns commissioned by them that still exist in the Acton collection today. The fashion house Callot Soeurs designed dresses for a rich elite group of women, first from Paris and later increasingly from America. A day dress by them cost around 2500 French Francs, which was a considerable amount of money especially considering that a ready made dress at that time would have cost less than 300 French Francs. The Callot Soeurs are known to have made great innovations in fashion. They are the first fashion house that made dresses from gold and silver lame composed of metal threads, a technique also used in Hortense’s dress. Voinnet, who started her carrier working for six years for the Callot Soeurs, expresses her high esteem for the fashion house by saying, “without the example of the Callot Soeurs, I would have continued to make Fords. It is because of them that I have been able to make Rolls Royces”.  She furthermore stated that the main designer of the sisters, Madame Gerber, “was a great lady who occupied herself with a profession that consists of adorning women…not constructing a costume”. The designer indeed stopped making dresses that needed corsets in 1903. The Callot Soeurs worked in the tradition of their family, which was highly involved with textiles; their mother was a lacemaker from a lacemaking family and their father was a painter and antiques dealer. Known for the quality of their undergarments, it is therefore not surprising that a lot of Hortense’s dresses remind one of lingerie with their “effortless lingerie-weight fabric” that constitutes both their sexappeal and the special new position and freedom that women enjoyed at the beginning of the 20th century, especially in the 1920s.

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