Finding clues in old clothes
Editor’s note: Former students and other readers contacted Gweneth West in response to her appearance in the January 2003 Arts & Sciences magazine. Here’s an account, by the author of the original story, of some interesting results.
The legendary sleuth Sherlock Holmes was famous for finding evidence in improbable places. It seems the cover story, “A Study in Violet: Finding Clues in Old Clothes” (January 2003) has brought drama department detective Gweneth West a slew of clues from similarly unlikely sources.
After reading about West and her work as curator of the University’s Collection of Historic Dress, Jacquelynn Merritt, whose son is a first-year student, sent West an e-mail. “I was extremely interested in the article about your work, especially the mysterious Mrs. Hyde,” she wrote.
With a love for genealogy, Merritt did some investigating of her own and uncovered some important hints about the history of the late-19th-century silk bustle dress dubbed “Mrs. Hyde” that was featured on the cover. Her legwork paid off. It offered strong evidence that suggests the gown belonged to Louise M. Hyde, wife of Albert G., who was a dry-goods merchant in Manhattan in the 1880s. Merritt also provided names that can be followed through public records to expand the investigation.
“What this does is add another piece to the puzzle,” West said. “It makes a connection that reinforces our suspicions that the gown was purchased in a New York store and as a finished garment.”
In addition to Mrs. Hyde’s identity, the article was instrumental in clarifying the history of two other garments. Experts who recognized the elaborate evening cloaks pictured in the article confirmed West’s suspicions that they were creations of two famous early-20th-century Italian designers: Maria Monaci Gallenga and her contemporary, Mariano Fortuny.
The article also prompted three donations, including an “astonishing” black silk chiffon boa from 1910. West said this sort of delicate accessory rarely survived the wear and tear of simply being used, much less stored.
“It was fascinating to me,” said West. “This all came out of the blue.”