Alexis Mabille claimed the nineteenth-century Italian painter Giovanni Boldini as inspiration for his couture collection this season. Boldini’s fluid brushstrokes earned him the title the “Master of Swish.” In an effort to recreate a similar sense of movement on his clothes, Mabille reproduced those swishes here, hand-painting otherwise simple tapered pants with ombré effects (trust that no female sitter of Boldini’s ever wore trousers), as well as a pair of charming evening dresses with large white flowers. The draped folds of a couple of duchesse satin gowns suggested that Mabille had made a close study of the artist’s work—how the movement of Boldini’s brush created light and shadows. They were almost luminous. Other times Mabille’s evocations of the Victorian era came off with more of a thud. “It’s a play on the past, but twisted in a modern way,” the designer said. But try as he might, there’s no making leg-of-mutton sleeves look contemporary. It’s equally hard to conjure the living woman who wants to wear bows on each shoulder that extend beyond the crown of her head. Boldini was one of the most fashionable portrait painters of his day—only John Singer Sargent was more famous. If Mabille wants that kind of success, he’s going to have to learn when to say when.


Rose silk faille dress, 1870s. Labeled Mme Gabrielle / Robes & Confections / 205 Rue St. Honoré, this elegant creation was designed by one of the premier couturiers of the 1860s and 1870s. The floral embroidery ornaments the bodice and the skirt, with its bustle and train. It was most likely worn by Gertrude Ellen Dupuy (1841-1902) who married Henry Shelton Sanford in 1864, both of wealthy American families. Gertrude was born in Philadelphia; they married in Paris and then lived in Brussels for a time. The dress was given to the museum in 1979 by her granddaughter, Gertrude Sanford Legendre.

A few weeks ago, we shared another Mme Gabrielle dress, also from the 1870s. The one today is perhaps even more luscious, adorned with magnificent floral embroidery. Parisian designers used embroidery ateliers or workshops to complete this kind of work, designed specifically to fit the cut of the gown. The bodice has 3/4 sleeves and a squared neckline, trimmed with white net lace. The buttons are covered to match the dress. It is lined with white silk and has encased stays, silk covered “bust improvers” and an inside waistband that bears the maker’s name and address. The long flowing skirt has a pleated front panel of cream satin; the back fits over a bustle and extends into a fairly long train, reinforced with pleated, stiffened gauze.

This dress came to the museum with a few extra pieces. Two are very obviously belts – one appears to have been cut from another piece that we just can’t figure out. It’s an odd rectangle, but is finished nicely (except for the cut-out) and even has two weights sewn into the hem. Any suggestions? The other piece is large and embroidered – could it be an alternate front skirt panel? Perhaps Mrs. Sanford thought it was too much and switched it out for the pleated satin. Email us at if you have a good idea!

TEXTILE TUESDAYS: Each Tuesday we post a piece from the Charleston Museum’s textile collection.  Some items have been on exhibit, some will eventually be shown in our Historic Textiles Gallery and some may be just too fragile to display. We hope you enjoy our selection each week – do let us know if there’s something in particular you’d like to see on TEXTILE TUESDAY! #TextileTuesday

Evening dress by Cristóbal Balenciaga, made of rose red silk in tabby weave, arranged over a stiff underskirt, decorated with white machine-made lace, Paris, Spring-Summer 1955. Cristóbal Balenciaga had always been inspired by historical styles and here gives his modern interpretation of the 19th century bustle dress.


Collection: Kunstgewerbemuseum Berlin. ©Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Photo: Stephan Klonk