Welcome to a brand new episode of FRIDAY FASHION FACT! Today we’re talking about a truly unique piece of fashion. Those of you who follow me on Twitter may have seen a sneak peak of this a few days ago. We’re talking about spun glass dresses. That’s right, dresses literally made out of glass. Admittedly, these dresses were few and far between, and were only marketed for a short amount of time. They caused a lot of buzz at the time, though, and are just so interesting, I couldn’t resist doing a post about them!
It all started at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. World Fairs at this time were unbelievable, over the top spectacles, unlike anything we have today. While we live in an age of unlimited technology and instant gratification, it is hard to imagine the wonder these people must have felt when they saw in person things come to life that they had only heard rumor of (sort of how I imagine Harry Potter World to be! What?) At a fair featuring celebrities, the first ever Ferris Wheel, a full sized chapel constructed completely out of Tiffany glass, and where the 2.5 square kilometer grounds themselves consisted of custom-made temporary neoclassical buildings, canals, and lagoons full of life size ships, how was a struggling glass designer to compete? (Side note, if you have time to do a bit of research on this fair, I highly recommend it- it’s fascinating!)
Luckily for Edward Drummond Libbey, he was quite the innovator. Libbey started his career at the New England Glass Company, known for creating decorative blown and pressed glass objects. He worked his way up in the company, ultimately taking it over in the 1880s, creating the Libbey Glass Company. Around this time, he hired Michael Joseph Owens, an engineer and inventor who specialized in glass-making machines. As the World’s Fair approached, Libbey knew it was his opportunity to take his company to the next level, but he would have to create something spectacular to make an impact.
Together with Owens, Libbey developed a method to pull glass into the thinnest strand ever created. These pieces were the same width as a single strand of silk, causing it to be the first artificially produced glass fine enough (and therefore flexible enough) to be woven into a full sheet. To add additional flexibility, only the weft (horizontal) threads were glass fibers, while the warp (vertical) were silk. The Libbey Company worked effortlessly to weave yards upon yards of glass fabric, shaping it into an elaborate evening gown.
The dress was displayed on a mannequin, and was an instant success. It had a shine unlike any other fabric at the time. The New York Times proclaimed that the dress was the future of fashion, not only for its beauty, but for the fact that it couldn’t be damaged by liquids as other fine fabrics could be. The first person to own one of these gowns was Spanish Princess Infanta Eulalia, who was gifted the gown by Libbey during her famous visit to the Chicago Fair. Though she vowed to wear it upon her return to Spain, she was never able to. The dress was too delicate, and crumbled when moved. Libbey improved his design, and shortly after, actress Georgia Cayvan became the first woman to wear a glass dress, which she donned on stage.
The spun glass, or fiberglass dress (not to by confused with modern fiberglass, which is mainly plastic) continued to be admired and talked about through the early 20th century, but it never became the prominent fashion which the papers had predicted. In the end, it was simply too impractical. On top of being incredibly delicate, drastically limiting the wearer’s movement, the dress was extremely heavy. Eventually, the idea was abandoned, and the trend all but forgotten. Still, it remains a fascinating little piece of fashion history!