Costume Society, News  |  August 2, 2017

Collecting Couture

Hannah Jackson


In 2015 the New Collecting Award was launched by the Art Fund, which aims to encourage early career curators to acquire objects to expand their museum’s collection and continue their professional development. In April 2015, I was awarded a New Collecting Award grant of £60,000 to collect a capsule wardrobe of French haute couture in homage to The Bowes Museum’s co-founder, Joséphine Bowes. Part of the funding is also allocated for research and travel.


The New Collecting Award has enabled me to travel to Paris and London for research and to visit fashion archives at Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent and Palais Galliera. I also have a mentor for the project, Professor Judith Clark, London College of Fashion. Judith’s expertise and contacts have been invaluable so far and have offered me insight into new areas of research. The award has supported me in resurrecting my French speaking and writing skills, which have been useful for contacting archivists and collectors in Paris.


With my training budget I attended the V&A’s international course Curating Fashion and Dress in November 2016. This course extended my network of fashion curators and elucidated the V&A’s approach to collecting and presenting dress. It offered me a chance to discuss the project with external colleagues and share ideas.


In December 2016 I purchased my first piece of couture for the collection: an embroidered evening jacket by Elsa Schiaparelli from her Paris Autumn-Winter collection, 1937-1938. The jacket is dark blue velvet with embroidery by Lesage and features rhinestones, sequins and star-burst buttons.


Joséphine was extremely fashionable and purchased many fine clothes and jewellery during her life, which I aim to emulate through the New Collecting Award. She patronised the leading couturier of the day, Charles Frederick Worth, who dressed Empress Eugénie of France and various European royals. Bills from the museum’s archive demonstrate Joséphine was spending large sums of money on her clothes and accessories.


Few paintings or photographs of Joséphine survive. In one full-length portrait, we see her in an informal but luxurious gown, known as a négligée de soir, which is described in fashion journals from the time as ‘truly Parisian’ with ‘those in white always considered the most elegant.’ 


The sumptuous pink silk ball-gown in another portrait, probably by Worth, is adorned with pearls. The full skirt was worn over a crinoline, which was the height of fashion in late 1850s, popularised by the trend-setting Empress Eugénie. A replica was designed and made by the costume designer Luca Costigliolo in 2012 and can be viewed in The Bowes Museum’s fashion and textile gallery.


Joséphine frequently visited a range of shops in Paris; milliners, dressmakers, glove makers, shoe and boot makers and haberdashers. She regularly frequented cloth houses and dressmakers, perhaps with ideas inspired by the fashion illustrations in her magazines, now in the museum library. Sadly most of her clothes have not survived, except for two bodices.


A Worth bill from 1st June 1872 demonstrates Joséphine’s desire to be ultra-stylish; she spent 11,184 francs at Worth that day, equivalent to around £114,000 today. She bought five gowns – one of lace and one of black velvet – as well as two scarves and five items of lace. 


She had plenty of jewellery and appeared to be fond of diamonds. A letter from her friend Madame Cecile Ferrère in 1861 stated: ‘how good and kind you are … I should like to adorn myself with that beautiful belt and your beautiful and numerous jewels’. The belt survives in the museum’s collection and can be seen in one of her portraits. In 1869, John bought her a diamond necklace with thirty-two stones. In 1873 a single diamond cost him 66,000 francs (£667,000). Some of the diamonds were sold later to help pay for the completion of the museum.


Further Reading:

1. John & Joséphine: The Creation of The Bowes Museum by Caroline Chapman, 2010

2. Shocking!: The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli by Dilys Blum, 2003


  • 1. Portrait of Joséphine Bowes by Antoine Dury, 1850 [B.M.297]
  • 2. Portrait of Joséphine Bowes possibly by Louis William Desanges, 1850s [B.M.529]
  • 3. Evening jacket by Elsa Schiaparelli, 1937-1938