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An Exceptional Dior Cotillion Gown

Fri, 05/22/2015 - 10:41

Editor’s note: In honor of prom season, take a close look at one of the Museum’s ball gowns with costume collection intern Corie Azem.

While the House of Dior is most readily identified with the seminal New Look collection, it is also well known for its luxurious gowns. In Chicago, Christian Dior’s garments were first available for purchase through two high-end retailers: Marshall Field’s 28 Shop and the Stanley Korshak boutique. In 1949, one very ambitious and auspicious debutante, Miss Jeanne Brucker, won a one-of-a-kind, custom-made Dior gown to be worn at the inaugural Passavant Cotillion and Christmas Ball.

Miss Jeanne Brucker in her Dior gown, 1949
Chicago History Museum, ICHi-74219

By selling the most tickets, $3,250 worth, to support Passavant Memorial Hospital (now part of Northwestern), Miss Brucker became the envy of the thirty-six other debutantes by winning the ultimate prize, an haute couture gown by the House of Dior. The second-place prize was a choice of gowns from the 28 Shop, valued up to $500.

Miss Brucker had already made her gown to wear to the event and, upon winning the extravagant prize, decided to bring that gown to the cotillion in case the weight of her new Dior one became too much. The Dior gown consists of 118 to 125 yards of silk tulle and fifteen to twenty yards of satin, all of which totals to about thirty-five pounds.

A view of the back of Miss Brucker’s dress.
Behind-the-scenes photographs taken by CHM staff.

The gown appears fairly simple at first glance, but the craftsmanship is impeccable and its understructure is what truly makes it an architectural marvel.  Surprisingly, the zipper is located on the front of the dress instead of the back, but is concealed by a decorative flap that secures just off center of the bodice.

A close-up view of the front with the bodice unzipped

A look at the interior of the gown reveals its structure. The bodice has a built-in corset, unlike historic dresses that had separate corsets and cage crinoline. In the back of the gown, a bustle-like structure created from stiff nylon fabric and plastic boning aids in shaping the gown, providing the necessary stiffness without the weight.

A view of the dress’s interior. The boning and layers of tulle are visible, and the golden part is the nylon structure that shapes the gown.

The cotillion was held on December 23, 1949, in the Royal Skyway Suite on the twenty-third floor of the Stephens Hotel on Michigan Avenue. Marshall Field & Company, the sponsor of the evening, donated money toward the decorations, flowers, dinner, and music. Field’s also gave each debutante a gold link bracelet with a charm engraved with the initial of her first name, and the escorts received a cigarette case on which their names were stamped in gold lettering.

Thirty-seven debutantes with their escorts at the Passavant Cotillion and Christmas Ball, 1949
Chicago History Museum, ICHi-37055

The event served two purposes: to raise money for Passavant Memorial Hospital’s free-bed fund and to introduce the young ladies of high-standing Chicago families into society. The event raised about $50,000, and newspaper articles described it as an unforgettable night of youth, romance, and opulence. Jeanne Brucker’s story reads like a fairytale: a young girl winning a gown from the newest and most sought-after designer of the time to wear to the ball at which she is introduced into society. In 1983, Mrs. Jeanne B. Heinzelman (née Jeanne Brucker) of Tupelo, Mississippi, donated her treasured Dior gown to the Museum’s costume collection so that her Chicago story could be shared with future generations.

> Read the Chicago Tribune’s coverage of the event

> Browse the Museum’s costume collection


A Look into CHM’s Fur Vault

Fri, 05/01/2015 - 11:01

Take a peek inside the Chicago History Museum’s fur vault with costume collections intern Amanda Cacich.

During the past six months, I’ve worked extensively with the objects in the Museum’s fur vault, which is essentially a walk-in refrigerator. The vault holds over 400 artifacts, including furs, ornate tortoiseshell hair combs, and early plastic rain coats. The chilled environment helps preserve the artifacts by slowing down the deterioration of the materials.

I was tasked with completing an inventory of the vault’s contents, which meant several weeks of going through racks of luxurious fur coats owned by some of Chicago’s most affluent women and men. My efforts resulted in updated locations for all of the vault’s items, making them easily accessible for future generations of Museum staff.

While many of the items were made by high-end designers, such as Christian Dior and Fendi, I was captured by the garments with a decidedly Chicagoan provenance, such as two pieces owned and worn by Miss Elizabeth F. Cheney (1902–85). Miss Cheney came from deep Chicago roots. She inherited the Cheney Mansion in Oak Park from uncle and aunt, Andrew and Mary Dole, and founded the Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation shortly before her death to support the arts and cultural institutions of Chicagoland, reflecting her lifelong interest in this field.

I have to provide a disclaimer that I, personally, am not particularly fond of the fur industry. But if I had to own a fur coat, it would be one of these. Now about those furs . . .

Picture it: Red-brown mink with silk lining and a shawl collar. This coat looks like it just came off the back of a 1950s Hollywood starlet, fitting for a garment that bears the label of an iconic Chicago institution.

Woman’s coat of mink fur worn by Elizabeth F. Cheney, c. 1950. Gift of Mrs. Mary McMenamin, 1987.63.2. Photographs by CHM staff, unless otherwise noted.

Miss Cheney had her initials embroidered on the silk lining of the coat, which also bears a Marshall Field & Company label.

In the 1950s when this coat was purchased, Marshall Field & Company was in its heyday. According to the store directory, the Fur Salon was on the sixth floor, where customers were treated to a lavish presentation that probably looked much like this window display.

Window display at Marshall Field & Company, Chicago, August 23, 1944. Hedrich-Blessing Collection, HB-08105j.

The second piece is a delicate stole, worn more for style than warmth, but it more than makes up for its small size. This piece is made from chinchilla fur, and in my opinion, it is the softest fur coat in the vault. Due to demand for both their ultra-luxurious pelts and the large number of these small animals required to make a fur garment, wild chinchillas are on the verge of extinction. With the rising protestations of animal rights groups like PETA and the development of realistic synthetic furs, real fur coats have largely fallen out of fashion in today’s society.

Woman’s stole of chinchilla fur worn by Elizabeth F. Cheney, c. 1955. Gift of Mrs. Mary McMenamin, 1987.63.64

Like the other garment, the Marshall Field’s label is prominent, along with embroidery marking the stole as property of Elizabeth Cheney.

Although these objects might be a source of some controversy today, they offer a glimpse into the wardrobe of one stylish Chicago lady. Weaving a narrative together with these objects has been a pleasure.


> Browse the Museum’s costume collection

> Learn more about the Cheney family at our Research Center

> Read more about Elizabeth F. Cheney