These garments dating from 1922 to the late 1930s share two traits: they were worn by Edith Stuyvesant Dresser Vanderbilt Gerry (1873–1958) and they incorporate gold in the form of lamé, metallic pigments, and actual metal threads. During the period represented here, lamés and pale gold fabrics added glamour and festive brightness to eveningwear, and Edith, with her striking good looks and height of nearly six feet, was the perfect model. These examples from the RISD Museum permanent collection beautifully reflect her drama, humor, and elegance.
Raised in Gilded Age opulence at her maternal grandparents’ Newport estate, Edith moved by 1892 to Paris, where she was exposed to a cosmopolitan lifestyle that suited her creative spirit and love of drama. In 1898, she married America’s most eligible bachelor, George Vanderbilt, and the pair lived in the grandest home in America: Biltmore, in North Carolina. As mistress of the house, Edith was outfitted by the leading French fashion houses, and she delighted in tableaux vivants (living pictures), a popular form of entertainment adopted from her time in Paris. Vanderbilt unexpectedly died in 1914, leaving Edith as the head of the estate. She returned to Rhode Island in 1925, when she married Senator Peter G. Gerry. After her death in 1958, her grandsons offered her clothing from her home at 62 Prospect Street (now RISD’s Woods-Gerry House) to the RISD Museum.
Symbolizing light and richness, golden fabrics historically were worn by the most elite, whether royalty or clergy. In the early modern period, shimmering golden fabrics were made of actual metal threads wound around a silk, linen, or wool thread. The weaving of metal thread required considerable skill and time, and the wearing of golden cloth signified extreme wealth; even in the form of fabric, the gold retained its value.
Luminous textiles became accessible to a wider audience in the early 20th century. Thanks to developments in textile science, precious metal threads were replaced by alloys and man-made alternatives; subsequently, cloth of pure gold became scarce. The garments on view, extraordinary examples from première fashion houses of the early 20th century, were created using traditional techniques and these new technologies.