As the Center team prepares for our upcoming fundraiser on May 20, 2023, A House Party at Two Cranbrooks, we have been peeking into closets and cabinets in search of what the Booth family might have worn to a garden gala at Cranbrook House, in the early decades of the Cranbrook estate, about 1908 to 1918.
The early years of Cranbrook House, from dedication of the main building in 1908 through the addition of the Library in 1918 and Oak Room in 1919, spanned major changes in society. Fashion changed significantly during this period, moving from the tightly corseted looks of the Edwardian era to the loose, drop-waisted garments that were popular by the time of Florence Booth’s debut party at Cranbrook in 1922.
George Booth and his family were deeply inspired by the British Arts and Crafts movement and collected textiles and furnishings from important figures like designer and expert embroiderer May Morris.
Arts and Crafts fashions drew on the same visual language, with rich colors and textures embellished with flowers, foliage, and patterns drawn from the natural world. The so-called Aesthetic Dress of the late nineteenth century combined artistic appeal with efforts to reform social attitudes about clothing. The flowing silhouettes of tea gowns were a spectacle for the display of luxurious silks, but also allowed for a greater range of movement without the need for restrictive undergarments.
Aesthetic Dress may have inspired the costuming for theatrical events staged by members of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts. Images of the 1910 Masque of Arcadia show soft, flowing gowns and floral crowns, while costumes for the 1916 Cranbrook Masque were designed by Helen Plumb and Katherine and Alexandrine McEwen, with fine fabrics appropriate to the newly opened Greek Theater.
But what is hanging in the closets of the Cranbrook House attic? The attic storage contains dozens of historic garments that were saved for historic value, sentimental associations with Cranbrook’s founding family, or most commonly for their usefulness as costumes for festive occasions like Henry Scripps Booth’s Twelfth Night Gala or the Festival of Gifts.
Most, however, are not aesthetic dress that would have been worn by May Morris. Rather, they represent the fashions of society ladies that could be found within the pages of publications like The Delineator.
Two dresses from the period caught my eye. The first is a soft silk gown with the characteristic empire waist and deep-V neckline of the mid-1910s with inset gold metallic lace, pink ribbon and white lace sleeves. This icy blue fabric was a popular color in the early twentieth century and was known as “Alice Blue,” named for the headstrong daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt (and popularized through the jazz and Broadway standard later performed by Judy Garland and Liza Minelli). The waistband reveals that the dress was made by Jacob Hock, Detroit’s “Leading Ladies’ Tailor,” likely at his premises on Brush and Adams Street.
A second evening gown from the collection also has a floral lace inset and a low V-neckline, which has been backed with an opaque modesty panel at some point in the garment’s history. The dusty blue of this dress is overlaid with several layers of black tulle and lace and the waist is cinched with a blue sash and heavy beaded decoration. The dressmaker is labeled as “Hughes, Detroit.”
These silk gowns would be appropriate to a formal evening event, but for much of their time at Cranbrook, the Booths dressed in more practical, though still elegant, clothing. For warm afternoons in the countryside, “lingerie dresses” of lightweight linen and cotton kept wearers cool and were easily laundered. Monochrome white fabric was decorated with inset lace, broderie anglaise cutwork, pintucks, and ruffles. Lightweight suiting with a crisp collar and white tie was a signature look for George Booth in warm weather.
Ensembles from the “Gentleman’s Tailor’ pictured in this fashion plate from 1914 would be a fitting accompaniment to the womenswear above. Outfits range from a smart top hat and frock coat, through to three-piece lounge suits, country tweeds, and clothing appropriate to sporting pursuits like cricket and tennis.
So, what might one wear to a garden gala at Cranbrook House? Taking inspiration from historical dress, one could look to the period-appropriate costuming of Titanic or the first seasons of Downton Abbey (though ladies should remember to remove their gloves before handling a knife and fork – Downton Abbey etiquette experts didn’t always get this right!). Those following in the footsteps of Arts and Crafts aesthetes might choose flowing drapery and embroidered flowers, fashionable folks might go for silk and lace, perhaps in an Alice Gown Blue, or choose white linen or sportive stripes fitting to a country setting. But of course, the most important rule in fashion, historical or otherwise, is to wear whatever makes you feel fancy, festive, and ready for a round of croquet!
—Nina Blomfield, The Decorative Arts Trust Marie Zimmermann Collections Fellow for the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research, 2021-2023
Editor’s Note: Tickets for A House Party at Two Cranbrooks go on sale on April 1, 2023. More information about the gala fundraiser is available on the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research website.