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Mrs. Fairchild's Worth Gown

Gown made by Charles Frederick Worth of Paris for Frances Fairchild of Madison, Wisconsin, 1880. (Museum object #1945.960,A)

The dream of nearly any fashion-minded wealthy American woman in the late 19th century was to own a gown especially designed for them by Charles Frederick Worth of Paris. Frances (Bull) Fairchild, who owned such a garment, may have been one of the few Wisconsin women to see that dream come true. In 1880 she lived in Europe where her husband, former Wisconsin Governor Lucius Fairchild, served as a diplomat. Early in the year the Fairchilds learned that Madrid would be their new home. Frances turned to Worth to make her a court dress so she could be properly presented to the King and Queen of Spain. Worth designed the gown out of her favorite fabric, purple silk velvet, and combined it with lavender peau de soie, a heavy satin, resulting in a stunning dress that Frances cherished until her death in 1924.

Worth was unusual in his time. He was the first male clothing designer to rise to preeminence, setting a precedent that made the future careers of other designers like Yves St. Laurent and Christian Dior possible in the 20th century. Born in England in 1826, Worth began as an apprentice in a well-established shop selling silk fabrics. Hoping for more, in 1847 he moved to Paris, shortly thereafter marrying clothing model Marie Vernet. After making a few dresses for his wife that garnered significant attention from the store's customers, he decided to start his own dressmaking firm.

While Worth suffered many early setbacks, by the 1860s he and his then-partner and financier Otto Bobergh finally wooed a few key prominent socialites and royals, particularly the famed beauty and trendsetter Empress Eugenie of France. But after the Empress, Worth's most important client, and her husband Napoleon III abandoned the throne, Bobergh feared ruin and left the establishment. Furthermore, the store closed during the Franco-Prussian war. Yet, when Worth reopened his doors in 1871, this time joined by his two sons and rechristened as the House of Worth, it was to great success. By the time Frances Fairchild ordered her gown nine years later, the "father of haute couture's" House of Worth was thriving, with passionate devotees on both hemispheres. Having a dress by Worth may have been one of the highlights of Frances' rich and busy life.

Frances was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1845, but after her father's death four years later, she moved with her mother to Washington, D.C. It was there in 1861 that she met the dashing and handsome Colonel Lucius Fairchild of Madison, Wisconsin. Two years later, when she was 18 years old, an admirer described Frances in this way, "with dark eyes and hair, small, well-proportioned, and a 'flirt.'" Colonel Fairchild would lose his left arm at the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863 before marrying Frances the following spring. The couple then promptly moved to Wisconsin, where Lucius, now a Brigadier General, had been elected Wisconsin's Secretary of State. In 1866 the state elected him governor and he remained in that office until 1872. For the next 10 years he would serve as a diplomat in Europe.

At the end of 1879 President Rutherford B. Hayes promoted Lucius from consul-general in France to envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to Spain. Frances, knowing she would be presented to the Spanish royal court, probably ordered her gown from the House of Worth early in 1880. On March 23, the day before leaving for Madrid, Lucius wrote a check to Worth for 1900 francs. At the time, 1,900 francs would have equaled $365 dollars in United States currency (approximately $7,500 in 2006 dollars).

Frances could not go with him to Madrid. The youngest of their three girls, Caryl, had come down with typhus earlier in the month, and although she was out of danger she still could not travel. General Fairchild spent five lonely months in Madrid before his family finally arrived on November 15. Less than two weeks later the Palace summoned Mr. and Mrs. Fairchild to a private audience with King Alfonso XII, Queen Teresa, and Infanta Isabel, Alfonso's mother. This event was followed by a general full dress reception at the Palace in honor of the King's birthday the next day, quite possibly the public debut of the Worth gown. After their final invitation to the Palace a month later on December 30, Lucius entered in his diary, "Attended with Mrs. F. in full toggery the opening of the Cortes by the King, Queen & Royal Family," possibly another reference to the garment. Around the time of one of these events Frances had herself photographed in her dramatic dress.

Never well since the birth of Caryl, Frances, and her three daughters left Madrid for Paris in June 1881. Lucius resigned his post at the end of the year and the family returned to the United States in February 1882.

[Sources: Ross, Sam. The Empty Sleeve: A Biography of Lucius Fairchild (Madison, WI: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1964); Lucius Fairchild Papers, Wis Mss GC, Wisconsin Historical Society Archives;; 1880 monetary conversion rate courtesy of Global Financial Data (online at]

Posted on February 22, 2007

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