KSR and the Gilded Age of Fashion

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KSR and the Gilded Age of Fashion

By: Alexis Slater, WFU ‘16 | @WakeReynolda

The Gilded Age in America, which lasted from the 1870s into the 1910s, was an era rich with fashion inspired by the extreme wealth. Fashion represented status and one’s position in the modern world. Keeping up with the latest fashions was of the utmost importance to the women of high society (much as it is to the average woman today). As the world changed and progressed, so did the fashions, challenging women to pay attention to the next best thing on the horizon. The highest fashion was found in Paris, with popular styles coming out of designer houses like Merlot-Larcheveque, House of Worth, and Compagnie Lyonnaise. Dresses from the city of love were incredibly expensive, only accessible to the very wealthy and the very fashionable. Imitators in the United States would emulate the Parisian styles for those who could not go to Paris themselves or send a representative in their stead.

Katharine Smith Reynolds (1905) in a pink silk taffeta gown purchased in Paris.

Katharine Smith Reynolds was certainly a devotee to fashion, always keeping up with the newest trends. Although she typically custom-ordered her gowns (from house gowns to evening gowns!) she designed and sewed her own wedding gown in 1905, as per family tradition. The dress was made of navy blue wool and was adorned with blue chiffon over white silk. It was made up of three parts:  a skirt, a waist, and a jacket. It had champagne velvet lapels trimmed with blue passmenterie and was accessorized with a a beaver fur hat that would have kept the bride’s head warm at the cold February wedding.

Katharine’s wedding suit, formerly on view in the Museum attic.

Leaving immediately from the wedding, Katharine and R.J. headed straight to their honeymoon in Europe, where Katharine would revel in the couture fashion of Paris. She was enamored with the style and glamour of the city, ultimately ordering two custom-made gowns. She ordered an apricot-colored crepe de Chine gown and a pink silk taffeta gown with lace trim from Compagnie Lyonnaise. The Compagnie was a high-end fashion retailer located amongst the most stylish couture houses of the city. It was at its most prominent and popular during the second half of the 19th century (and was on the decline, at least in the eyes of Parisians by 1900).

The crepe de Chine gown has lace medallions incorporated into the bottom of the skirt, each of which is surrounded by silk embroidery. Lace adorns the edges of the sleeves and the yoke collar, a silhouette popular at the time. The bodice is embellished with soft, delicate ruffles.


Detail of lace applique on the bodice of the pink silk taffeta gown

The pink silk taffeta gown (Katharine wears this gown in the first archival photograph) has an intricate texture enhanced through ruching, facilitated through the application of tin chloride or lead plumbate which was used to stiffen silk fabrics. The light pink is contrasted with both ivory lace, applied in applique on the bodice and in softer ruffles on the sleeves, and by a shock of bright magenta in the waistband.

Both dresses have a high collar and a bell-shaped skirt. During the Gilded Age, a woman would have most likely worn this type of garment as an afternoon visiting gown or as a reception gown, worn at dinner or for nights out at the theater.

Ever the fashionista, Katharine was one of the most stylish women in North Carolina, with her beautiful gowns showing her progressiveness, modernity, and charm. She paid great attention to every detail of her outfits, custom ordering countless gowns to ensure that they were to her liking and allowed her to maintain her stylish image.

Sources:  The Paris Gowns by Ruth Mullen and Reforming Women’s Fashion (1850-1920) by Patricia A. Cunningham


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