Being presented at the Court of St. James in London, England was a pivotal moment in the social life of a debutante—it marked her entrance into adult society. Naturally, such an auspicious occasion required a truly spectacular gown. We are fortunate to have several court presentation gowns in our collection. Here are two particularly beautiful ones.
A young lady’s court presentation gown was one of the most lavish and important gowns she would ever own, perhaps even more important than her wedding dress. Court presentation gowns were traditionally white, but by the 1920s all colors were allowed. The entire ensemble was regulated strictly, as can be seen from these rules published in The Times in 1923:
Court presentation gown and train, Jacques Doucet, 1926. Gift of Miss Mary Dudley Kenna. 1965.380a-e.
Above is the dress and train that belonged to Mary Dudley Kenna, who was presented at the Court of St. James on June 10, 1926. The Times, which reported on all of the apparel worn by debutantes and notables at the ceremony, described it as “A gown of pink satin embroidered with pastel flowers and a train to match.”
Detail of the train.
The ensemble was designed by Jacques Doucet (1853–1929), a prominent couturier of the period. Doucet’s technical mastery can be seen in the construction of the appliqué flowers, which are made of strategically gathered velvet and satin that create dimensionality and convey the softness of a flower petal. There is also a sense of whimsy in the design, with small flowers playfully falling from the basket.
Mary Dudley Kenna in her court presentation gown. The photograph was taken at Lafayette Studio in London, which photographed many debutantes on their day of presentation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Court presentation gown and train, Edward Molyneux, 1928. Gift of Mrs. Frederick L. Spencer. 1962.464a-d.
This court presentation dress was worn by Mrs. Frederick L. Spencer, née Helen Hurley, in 1928. She was the daughter of Edward N. Hurley, chairman of the United States Shipping Board in President Woodrow Wilson’s cabinet. According to a pamphlet about American women presented at the Court of St. James, Helen was a “member of the Racquet, the Casino, and the Chicago Golf Clubs, and is vitally interested in St. Vincent’s Orphanage, the Woman’s Exchange of Chicago, the Christ Child Society and all British relief agencies.”
Detail of the beading on the train.
This gown was designed by Edward Molyneux (1891–1974), another important couturier of the period, and shows the influence of the Art Deco movement. The sleek, extenuated teardrop shapes and the concentric lines created by the rows of pearls are both hallmarks of the Art Deco style.
Helen Hurley Ryan in her court presentation gown and train, 1928. ICHi-68655.
These two gowns provide a small glimpse of the lavish spectacle of court presentation, as well as the artistry of two important couturiers of the 1920s.
In his Author! Author! blog series, Museum president Gary T. Johnson highlights works that draw on our collection.
Darcy L. Evon. Hand Wrought Arts & Crafts, Metalwork & Jewelry: 1890–1940. Atglen, Pennsylvania: Schiffer Publishing, Ltd. (2014).
This extraordinary work can be read on many levels. As a picture book of metalwork and jewelry with 749 photos, it is unsurpassed. As a reference book about artists, workshops, and hallmarks, it is indispensable. For new insights on major figures such as Jane Addams and Bertha Honoré Palmer, it offers color. At its deepest level, this is the story of a social movement, one that was spurred by the Progressive movement and reached into hearth and home, studio and the workplace, changing the lives of those with the skills to make hand–wrought masterpieces and winning support from a wider public. The scope is breathtaking and the work is meticulous.