Napoleon III Court Dress

By: Emily Bach

Finding fascinating garments is an everyday occurrence while rehousing the Maryland Historical Society Costume Collection. Each garment holds its own piece of history that never fails to intrigue us, especially when we delve deeper into the stories of its owner. One dress that caught our attention was the court dress of Mary Sterling, which she wore when presented at the court of Napoleon III in Paris in 1853 or 1854. Napoleon III’s empire, lasting from 1852-1870, witnessed rapid prosperity and fortune, evident when observing the courtly fashion during his reign. Empress Eugenie, the wife of Napoleon III, embodied fashion during this era and was a fashion icon for women to follow. After her marriage to Napoleon III, Parisian dressmakers were employed to make the empress a series of extravagant gowns.  One such dress was a green silk dress fringed with curled feathers, a style that emphasized the importance of showcasing wealth and material success. Winterhalter’s painting of Empress Eugenie, wearing a white dress with purple ribbons, and her ladies in waiting showcases the fashion trends of Napoleon III’s court.  Most dresses within the painting feature luxurious fabrics such as tulle, silk, taffeta, lace, and ribbon, as well as flounces embellished with trimmings, all of which are characteristics found in Mary Sterling’s dress.

 

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Mary Sterling’s court dress is a two piece white taffeta gown with beautiful lace trimming and pink velvet geometric designs. The dress’s bodice is trimmed with strips of taffeta featuring the pink velvet pattern and edged with lace. Pink grosgrain ribbon bows, which are in excellent condition due to its sturdy material, are attached at the top of the bodice’s off-the-shoulder short sleeves. The skirt of Mary Sterling’s gown has three flounces, each trimmed with the same velvet pattern featured on the bodice. Mary Sterling’s dress does not stray away from the regal fashion popular during this era as her dress features the luxurious fabrics, delicate ribbons, and full multi-tiered skirt that is prevalent in the painting of Empress Eugenie.

 

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After visiting the court of Napoleon III, Mary married her first cousin Thomas Prichard Rossiter, who was a painter and the son of Charlotte Beers, the sister of Mary’s mother, Marianne Beers. Mary and Thomas married sometime in the 1860s after the death of Thomas’s first wife in 1856 while they lived in Paris. Thomas and his first wife had a son named Ehrick Kensett Rossiter, who married Mary Heath of Pittsburg on June 14th 1877. Their daughter Edith Rossiter, who later married William F. Bevan, donated the dress to the museum, along with many other items. She was very involved with the Maryland Historical Society and wrote for the Maryland Historical Magazine.

Sadly Mary’s court dress is in need of conservation. The tulle holding the trimming on the bodice has disintegrated, making the piece extremely fragile and delicate. As we rehoused the bodice, we delicately handled the garment. Still, the tulle continued to fall apart. Along with the disintegrating tulle, the bodice’s underarm stains have rotted the silk and it appears black under the arms. Staining is frequent along the skirt as well. Hopefully in the future we will be able to strengthen the condition of the dress and further preserve its amazing story.

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A special thank you to Leo Witt for his research on Mary Sterling and her family.