New Collecting Awards: Shopping and identity

Earlier this year Hannah Jackson won a New Collecting Award. Here she writes about the progress of her project – to build a collection of French haute couture.

As a new curator to the field of fashion and textiles at The Bowes Museum, I am continually learning exciting stories about the museum’s past. Founders of the museum, John and Joséphine Bowes, were collectors of European fine and decorative arts, and chose to build a museum in the style of a French Château, in Barnard Castle, County Durham, to house their extensive collections.

Joséphine Bowes’ life and identity are of great interest to me. We know that Joséphine Bowes had a taste for high-end fashion and during the 1850s and 1860s, and aligned herself with women such as Empress Eugénie (the last Consort of France), frequently shopping at the House of Worth, the ‘father of haute couture’ Charles Frederick Worth’s fashion house in Paris.

We have two bodices in our collection which are speculatively attributed to Joséphine; unfortunately no other couture from her wardrobe survives. Using our archive of bills and records, which John and Joséphine retained throughout their lives, the New Collecting Award will enable me to research and acquire an iconic capsule collection of French haute couture in homage to Joséphine, reflecting her tastes and lifestyle.

Joséphine Bowes was registered as an actress at Théâtre des Variétés on the Boulevard Montmartre when she met John Bowes, son of the 10th Earl of Strathmore. Various sources have expressed how actresses received bad press during the mid-19th century in Paris, often being described as courtesans. It is Joséphine’s background and future status which I find most intriguing. I aim to explore her social status and shopping habits of the 1850s and 1860s in order to gain a better understanding of her personality and identity: what fabric was she buying? Was she fond of colour? How was she accessorising? How often did she shop and why?

My research of Joséphine’s bills has so far revealed her abundant love of shopping both before and after she married John Bowes. Prior to her marriage, Joséphine regularly shopped under her stage name Mademoiselle Delorme. Her identity is later replaced by Madame Bowes. Her favoured shops were Parisian; La Chaussée d’Antin (supplying shawls, cashmere and silks), A. Fichot (gloves and millinery) and the House of Worth (couturier).

An exciting aspect to the Art Fund’s New Collecting Award is contact with my appointed mentor, Professor Judith Clark, a fashion curator and lecturer at London College of Fashion. Professor Clark is one of the two co-founders of the Centre for Fashion Curation (CfFC) and is internationally recognised in her field. Judith’s expertise and knowledge has helped to identify how I can plan the project and she has recommended professionals in the field who can support me.

The next stage of the project is another meeting in London with Judith Clark, who will introduce me to Professor Amy de la Haye (Professor of Dress History and Curatorship at the London College of Fashion) to discuss House of Worth. I will arrange an appointment at the V&A to view archives from the House of Worth during 1850s/1860s. In the new year, I plan to visit Paris to meet curators at Palais Galliera and Musée des Arts Décoratifs and to view their collections of French haute couture from 1850s onward. Our current exhibition Yves Saint Laurent: Style is Eternal is also a great inspiration for the project.

The New Collecting Awards enable promising curators to pursue new avenues of collecting, while building skills. Read about the other New Collecting Awards winners.

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