3 decades of fashion showcased in exhibition

Sunday February 10, 2013

Special to the Eagle


Over a century old, the cream-colored satin gown is still in impeccable condition and undeniably elegant with its voided velvet, lace-trimmed neckline, and wide low décolletage.

That is what comes from being designed by the Parisian haute couture fashion house of Charles Frederick Worth.

Worn by Evaline Kimball Salisbury, whose family owned Tor Court, a Gilded Age mansion overlooking Onota Lake, it is one of 19 outfits in the Berkshire Historical Society’s latest exhibit "The Kimball Salisbury Women: Chicago to Tor Court 1890-1930."

Showcasing gowns worn by four different Kimball women who summered at Tor Court, the exhibit touches on three decades of fashion history, from the declining days of high Victorian style, through the Edwardian Era and the Roaring 1920s.

Guest curator Patricia Purdy, who organized a previous show for the historical society, "The Crane Women of Substance and Style" in 2011, said over that span of time, formal dresses with large puffed sleeves, narrow waists and full, long skirts gave way to less-constricting, slimmer dresses on which the waists dropped and hemlines came up.

From the Worth gown to a peach dressing robe, "the diversity of the garments [in the exhibit] is amazing," said Purdy.

She said the Worth gown would be valued at $10,000 in today’s dollars. It was made in 1900 and

was likely worn for a grand fete at Tor Court. Worth died in 1895, but his descendents continued the fashion house until the 1950s

The gown’s lavish fabrics as well as intricate trimmings, such as faceted glass beads and twisted metallic braid, are signatures of Worth’s designs.

The donor, Gay Kimball Gamage, was 5 years old when her great aunt Evaline Kimball Salibury died in 1945. She never saw her wear the Worth gown, but recalled her aunt visiting the family’s farm in Maine, looking elegant.

"She used to go for walks in the field wearing a white dress, and she had a white parasol," recalled Gamage. "And we have pictures of her picking hops in 1890s, so she enjoyed the outdoors as well as the elegant events."

Donated 70 items

Gamage and her family donated about 70 items, including the Worth gown, to the Berkshire Historical Society.

She said the family had often discussed the most appropriate custodian of the gowns and entrusted them to the Berkshire Historical Society because they seemed the most fitting organization.

"We had talked about it for a long time," she said. "They were just up in the attic in trunks so it was a shame that people didn’t see them. The clothing is too beautiful to just hide away in trunks."

Gamage sais she did keep a few items for herself, which she she still wears today. Among them is a maroon velvet coat, a dark-blue velvet cape and a wool cape with silk tassles.

"They are marvelous," she said.

Like other wealthy women of the period, Evaline Kimball Salisbury, the niece of Kimball Piano Company tycoon William Wallace Kimball, would have traveled to Paris to buy the latest fashions.

The Kimball-Salibury garments offer a window into the world of the Gilded Age, a time when many wealthy families called the Berkshires their summer home and mingled in the utmost sartorial elegance.

"Looking at and working with these dresses makes me realize how much assistance these women needed in getting dressed," said Purdy, who holds a degree in fashion design from Endicott College, is the wife of sculptor Andrew DeVries, and has always "yearned to be a Victorian woman."

"The boning, bustling and tying in of these women... Having worked with these garments so closely now I’m not sure I would want to go back," she quipped.

Evaline Kimball was born on her family’s farm in Rumford, Maine, in 1864. Partial to her uncle William Wallace Kimball and his wife, also named Evaline, young Evaline chose to stay with them in Chicago, according to the Berkshire Historical Society.

Privileged lifestyle

"With his great wealth and connections to high-society Chicago, William Wallace Kimball undoubtedly provided Evaline with a privileged lifestyle, a top-notch education, and the perfect setting for introductions to wealthy potential suitors," reads a family history drafted by the Historical Society.

Evaline Kimball would go on to marry Warren M. Salisbury, president of his family’s rubber manufacturing company, and the two would build their summer home Tor Court in 1908.

The 67-room stone and stucco mansion on 160 acres above Onota Lake cost $800,000 at that time Walls of Italian walnut, 14-foot ceilings with plaster sculptures, and Italian marble fireplaces are among its finer points.

"If the architecture is beautiful, the things that people are going to be wearing were beautiful," Purday said. "People today don’t get that; they don’t get the richness."

Tor Court closed upon Evaline Kimball Salisbury’s death in 1945 and was sold to Hillcrest Hospital three years later for $145,000. The property is now owned by Berkshire Health Systems and and functions as Berkshire Medical Center’s Hillcrest Campus. Despite a numbdert of additions, much of the original house and grounds have been preserved.

Images of Tor Court taken in the 1900s by photographer Edwin Hale Lincoln are also part of the exhibition and, according to Berkshire Historical Society Curator Will Garrison, help provide context for the gowns.

"We wanted to do our best to illustrate the story and put these dresses in context," said Garrison. "It was good fun story good for the winter to see these wonderful summer gowns. It is a respite from the Berkshire winter."

Carrie Saldo can be reached at www.carriesaldo.com


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