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A Cache of Couture Gowns From the Callot Soeurs

Get a close look at the delicate work of the turn-of-the-century Parisian designers
Threads #223, Fall 2023
Hortense Mitchell Acton collected dozens of gowns by the French design house. In the 1907 portrait by Julius Rolshoven, she wears the dress shown on display at Villa La Pietra, Florence. Photo: Riccardo Cavallari, © New York University, Acton Collection, Villa La Pietra, Florence

Ten years ago while at a dinner at the Villa La Pietra (VLP) in Florence, a dean from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts—where I was teaching costume construction—handed me a spiral-bound notebook. It contained an inventory of dresses and shoes, with an appraiser’s assessment of the items. At first, I did not understand what Dean Allyson Green had given me.

I turned the pages, my eyes widening, and asked, “Where are these dresses?” Thus began my adventure into the world of the Callot Soeurs and the incredible dress collection amassed by the American socialite Hortense Mitchell Acton.

The dresses were discovered in 2004, when a painting conservator at the Villa opened an old Louis Vuitton trunk in a storage room. Inside was a collection of dresses and shoes ranging in date from 1907 to the late 1930s, which were once owned by Acton. The most unusual aspect of this discovery is that 21 of the dresses were created by the Parisian couture house of Callot Soeurs.

Acton clearly had an affinity for the Callot atelier, celebrated for sumptuous materials and impeccable craftsmanship. She had started to purchase Callot dresses shortly after the turn of the 20th century, and her association with the atelier was on a firm footing by the time she took up residence at Villa La Pietra.

An enterprising family

Pictured are three of the sisters. Though the couture house was founded by all four, Josephine died in 1897.

The four Callot sisters—Marie, Marthe, Régine, and Josephine—had a father who was a painter and a mother who was a lacemaker. The sisters opened their business in 1879 as a lace, ribbon, and lingerie shop. With the talented Marie, who had trained as a dressmaker, serving as head designer, the business expanded by 1895 to create…

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