Survey says: A 1907-1908 Callot Soeurs Thought Experiment

There is always an ongoing debate as to weather fashion is art. Because it serves a function, many would argue that it does not fall into the art category. I disagree. I decided to do an experiment with a select group of fashion scholars who would be asked to look at a gown, be given minimal information about it, and asked to report what ‘art and social’ movements they saw represented.

The results were fascinating.

The Experiment:

I wanted to not only see if there would be consensus, but also to get a ‘snapshot’ of current thinking and assumptions among academics in the field. The dress I choose was this Callot Soeurs from 1907-1908, owned by Marjorie Merriweather Post, one of the American “Dollar Princesses” and at one time the richest Woman in America. The dress is held in the Hillwood Museum  collection.

The dress seemed to have a lot going on, and served my purpose well. I provided three images of the dress, the designer, the date: That was all. The survey was supplied to the Costume Society of America members-only listserve and an online academic Facebook group dedicated to the study of fashion history. These were people I considered my colleauges: knowledgable and honest. I wanted their own understanding of early 20th Century fashion and history to dictate their responses. I had my own thoughts and conclusions about the dress, but I was eager for a ‘group think.’


First, I asked:

And then I asked, “Why?” I provided no definition of terms, on purpose. I didn’t want my bias to interrupt their own understanding and perception. As responses began to come in, I added a place for people to include their names, as well as any comments they had.

The Response

The responses came in slowly over about a 24 hour period. 25 people responded, and some supplied comments in an extra ‘comment’ field to ask questions. The online debate started almost immediately, which was thrilling.

The response confirmed most of my assumptions about the style of the dress, but many new and interesting points were brought to my attention, via the “Why.” Some seemed far fetched, or stretching. Some seemed bang on. Here are a few of the arguments:

The lily-shape of the skirt and the curves of the bodice are emblematic of the “organic” shapes of Art Nouveau, and the colors and embroidery seem like classic Aesthetic dress.”

Some of the forms seem to reflect the curvilinear/flora forms of art nouveau. On the other hand there is a geometry to some of it that suggests the arts/crafts influence. The suggestion of hand work details around the top also seem to connect to arts/craft”

The feather-image embroidery, and some of the few geometric details are reminiscent of native american inspired motifs. The panel across the breast seems vaguely suggestive of a thunder-bird image.”

While this does look like it is embracing the more relaxed style of artistic/aesthetic dress and the more movement-friendly designs championed by dress reformers, I wonder usually associate those both with specific ideology and something that is hard to pin down without more information (who owned it, how it is constructed). I think the surface design does reflect art nouveau aesthetics, which seems to be more of a style and easily identifiable from just looking at images.”

It [Rococo revival] was a very prevalent trend. Look in Les Modes and other magazines at the time and you will see portraits from the 1770s and 80s reproduced, such as Antoinette, and Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire. Also not the hair and the hat size, and compact that with the 1780s.”

Artistic is a guess, but how else does one explain such over-the-top decoration. The light blue embroidery looks more like Rococo than Art Nouveau. URI has a collection of fabrics with some Rococo Revival designs.”

The wheat shelves are often used in banners and flags, coats of arms, etc. The wheat sheif is often held in the talons of an eagle or held in the arms of the goddess. The wheat can also symbolize the workers. That is the political. Some of the elements make reference to military dress. The breast plate, the stripes, the two embroidered pendants at the front of the skirt. The ribbonwork on the bodice.”


Click here for the full results of the survey (as a spreadsheet).

I’m eager to hear what others think of this little thought experiment, and am hopeful this post generate additional debate and conversation. What did you see in the dress? What did you agree with or disagree with? The responses were so varied, and people saw so many different elements within the dress, it seems it must be art.

Art is in the eye of the beholder, no?

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