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Numerous Louis Vuitton steamer trunks sat abandoned for decades in a forgotten storeroom in a fifteenth-century Florentine villa. When a painting conservator eventually stumbled upon the trunks, what she found inside were not only 38 beautiful gowns, but a lost piece of fashion history was also unpacked, along with the life of Hortense Mitchell Acton, the wealthy American banking heiress who owned them.

Twenty-one of the incredible dresses had a silk label with “Callot Soeurs” hand-woven onto it. Callot Soeurs was a celebrated design house in Paris and one of the most famous names in Belle Époque fashion. The house’s top seamstress was Madeleine Vionnet, one of the most innovative and influential designers of the twentieth century who rejected corsets and buttons and pioneered the bias-cut dress.

Not many haute-couture creations designed by Callot Soeurs have survived. Hence, the gowns found decaying inside the trunks in 2004 were a rare and significant discovery, and the collection is one of the most important archives of the couturiers in the world. They were first shown in The New Yorker in 2015.

A pink and cream silk evening ballgown with embroidered metallic net overlay and train, circa 1907, and a portrait by Julius Rolshoven of American heiress Hortense Mitchell Acton wearing the dress.

One of the dresses found in the trunks is this pink and cream silk evening ballgown with embroidered metallic net overlay and train, circa 1907. The portrait by Julius Rolshoven is of American heiress Hortense Mitchell Acton wearing the dress.

As the daughters of a lacemaker and painter, the Callot sisters — Marthe Bertrand, Joséphine Crimont, Marie Gerber, and Régine Tennyson-Chantrelle — opened their first shop in Paris in 1879. Selling the ribbons, lace, and lingerie that were coveted for the ornately detailed fashions of the era helped their business thrive. By 1895, their success allowed the business to expand into a couture house under Callot Soeurs (the French word for sisters). After Joséphine committed suicide in 1897, the other three sisters continued to run the business. 

One of the Louis Vuitton trunks the dresses were found in. In the Acton collection at Villa La Pietra, there are ten original trunks, four of which have been displayed as part of a temporary exhibition on the subject of fashion and lifestyle in the 1920. These trunks speak not only to the incredible wealth of the Actons, but also to their globalized, cosmopolitan lifestyle.

One of the Louis Vuitton trunks the dresses were found in. In the Acton collection at Villa La Pietra, there are ten original trunks, four of which have been displayed as part of a temporary exhibition on the subject of fashion and lifestyle in the 1920s. These trunks speak not only to the incredible wealth of the Actons, but also to their globalized, cosmopolitan lifestyle.

In this photograph of Acton taken by H.A.V. Coles in Paris in 1909, she is wearing the Callot Soeurs' pale blue silk satin and gray chiffon two-piece evening dress found in one of the trunks.

In this photograph of Acton taken by H.A.V. Coles in Paris in 1909, she is wearing a Callot Soeurs' pale blue silk satin and gray chiffon two-piece evening dress that was found in one of the trunks.

A closeup of the marcasite ornament on the blue and gray dress.

A closeup of the marcasite ornament on the blue and gray dress.

The label became known for its resplendent and romantic gowns, highly ornamented creations of weightless layers inspired by the Near and Far East. The sisters also abandoned corsets and the S-curve of the 1890s and favored a more natural feminine shape instead.

Vogue magazine referred to them as the Three Fates and declared they were “foremost among the powers that rule the destinies of a woman’s life and increase the income of France.”

A pale pink and black silk evening dress composed of a bodice and a skirt, with gold trim and black velvet belt. A black lace overlay covers the shoulders and the skirt; circa 1910-12.

A pale pink and black silk evening dress composed of a bodice and a skirt, with gold trim and black velvet belt. A black lace overlay covers the shoulders and the skirt; circa 1910-12.

A textile conservator uses a professional humidifier to treat the pink and black dress, releasing creases by directing moisture.

A textile conservator uses a professional humidifier to treat the pink and black dress, releasing creases by directing moisture.

Their reputation snowballed throughout Paris, and the 1900 Paris Exposition introduced them to an international clientele. The house became regarded as the vanguard of Belle Époque fashion and set the standard for elegance at the beginning of the twentieth century. The sisters’ creations helped usher in a new era of style and became a staple in the wardrobes of society women throughout Europe and the United States.

One of these society women was Hortense Mitchell Acton, who owned these dresses and the villa they were found in, La Pietra.

Built by a Medici banker, the 62-room Villa La Pietra, located in the hills outside of Florence, Italy, was bought in 1907 by Acton, a Chicago heiress married to Arthur Acton, an English antiques dealer, and art collector.

Acton was a faithful client of Callot Soeurs and bought the sisters’ designs from the first time they opened their doors until they closed them in the 1930s. The surviving custom-made gowns show the complexity of the Callots’ designs and their craftsmanship and innovation. They also show their skill at working with two of their favorite materials, lace and lamé, that they were among the first designers to use.

Gold lamé and cream silk evening dress with short sleeves, gathered gold waistband and lace upper bodice, the underskirt also with lace trim. Label “Callot Soeurs. Paris,” 1910-12.

Gold lamé and cream silk evening dress with short sleeves, gathered gold waistband and lace upper bodice, the underskirt also with lace trim. Label “Callot Soeurs. Paris,” 1910-12.

Detail of the gold lamé and cream silk evening dress.

Detail of the gold lamé and cream silk evening dress.

La Pietra provided the perfectly grand backdrop for Acton to drape herself in those Callot Soeurs gowns when she hosted parties. Her lavish soirees drew important writers, artists, politicians, actors, and members from the cosmopolitan milieu. Everyone from Winston Churchill to Gertrude Stein attended these parties, according to New York University, which is now the caretaker of La Pietra.

When the Fascists rose to power in Italy in the 1920s, most of Florence’s expatriates fled. Hortense wanted to leave as well, but her husband wanted to stay to protect his collections and their villa, but in 1940, the police confiscated La Pietra and its contents (but overlooking the dresses). Being an American, Hortense was considered a hostile foreigner, and she was jailed, but she and her husband eventually escaped to Switzerland. After Hortense died in 1962 at age 90, her gowns were still in the trunks.

Hortense’s passion for the Asian world was an interest that began when she was a child in Chicago, and many of her Callot Soeurs' dresses show influence from Chinese costumes. This pink and green silk dress from the 1920s is a more obvious example of this. The cut (emphasis on the black lace bat wings and loose-fitting design) and embroidered details of the fabric (which is likely directly from China) are examples of how the Chinese style influenced the design. Passementerie tassels composed of rhinestones, pearls and beads that hang from either shoulder.

Hortense’s passion for the Asian world was an interest that began when she was a child in Chicago, and many of her Callot Soeurs' dresses show influence from Chinese costumes. This pink and green silk dress from the 1920s is a more obvious example of this. The cut (emphasis on the black lace bat wings and loose-fitting design) and embroidered details of the fabric (which is likely directly from China) are examples of how the Chinese style influenced the design. Passementerie tassels composed of rhinestones, pearls and beads that hang from either shoulder.

Hortense Mitchell Acton is wearing the green and pink Callot Soeurs' dress in this photo from the 1920s.

Hortense Mitchell Acton is wearing the green and pink Callot Soeurs' dress in this photo from the 1920s.

NYU was bequeathed La Pietra in 1994 by the Actons’ son, Sir Harold Acton, the Oxford memoirist, historian, and aesthete, who had tucked away his mother’s gowns in the steamer trunks. When they were discovered in 2004, they were in good condition for being so old. Still, as The New Yorker story notes, chemicals from glass beads leached into the fabric, sequins deteriorated, and embellishments tore the tulle they adorn.

Three-piece black and blue satin day dress with bat-wing sleeves and embroidery, Callot Soeurs, 1920s.

Three-piece black and blue satin day dress with bat-wing sleeves and embroidery, Callot Soeurs, 1920s.

Dated 1929, this floral print silk (lamé) Callot Soeurs' cocktail sheath dress, with an extravagant pink rose on the hip, is an indication of the glamorous lifestyle Hortense Mitchell Acton enjoyed at Villa La Pietra.

Dated 1929, the university says that this floral print silk (lamé) Callot Soeurs' cocktail sheath dress, with an extravagant pink rose on the hip, is an indication of the glamorous lifestyle Hortense Mitchell Acton enjoyed at Villa La Pietra.

After a survey and conservation treatment to make them stable for temporary display, the university said five of Hortense’s rare and expensive Callot Soeurs dresses were presented to the public at Villa La Pietra. In NYU’s online exhibition, these dresses represent different fashion styles between the early 1900s and 1930s. The fashions are put into the context of five other rooms of the villa to allow visitors to get to know Hortense Mitchell Acton through these dresses and accompanying artifacts.

For example, Acton’s well-loved pink and cream silk evening gown represents the early stage of her life at La Pietra. It can be dated around 1907 when her portrait by the Detroit painter Julius Rolshoven was commissioned and displayed in the villa. 

Acton's well-loved pink and cream silk evening gown.

Acton's well-loved pink and cream silk evening gown.

Detail of the metallic net overlay of the pink and cream silk evening gown.

Detail of the metallic net overlay of the pink and cream silk evening gown.

With her husband, Hortense shared an appreciation for the arts and kept many noteworthy artists within her networks, such as Jacques-Emile Blanche, and James Montgomery Flagg. These influential artists’ works can also be found throughout the collection today. The university said the painting by Rolshoven is the only portrait in the group where Hortense is wearing one of the gowns from her haute couture wardrobe.

Today, Callot Soeurs’ legacy remains understudied. However, the couture house is still widely recognized, and its fashions are collected. The sisters’ designs feature prominently in museum collections worldwide, perform well at auction, and can sell for thousands, such as this 1927 flapper dress.

Although they require great care and are challenging to preserve because of the array of different materials the sisters used in making them, the 21 lavish Callot Soeurs' gowns continue to live on in a room on the villa’s fourth floor.To learn more about Acton's life and see more in the collections, visit Villa La Pietra

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