13 October 2016

Cutting edge-fashion: N.B. Museum preserves rare gown made of glass

1 of only 4 known to exist in the world, the glass dress was created for 1900 world fair in Paris

By Julia Wright, CBC News

A 116-year-old evening gown in the collection of the New Brunswick Museum exemplifies cutting-edge fashion.

Made of glass fibres interwoven with silk, the floor-length, pale green gown is one of only four dresses in the world made of so-called "moonlight cloth."

The dress, originally made for the the Exposition Universelle of 1900 in Paris, showcased the sophistication of contemporary glass-making techniques.

While manufacturers had experimented with drawing glass out into long, thin fibres since the 1780s, Peter Larocque, the New Brunswick Museum's curator of cultural history and art, said the 1900 dress would have been a marvel of its age.

"Turning it into something wearable, bendable and so fine," said Larocque, "stretched the limits of the path of the material."

Shimmering 'moonlight cloth'

The dress in the New Brunswick Museum archives on Douglas Avenue is considered the best-preserved example among the world's four remaining dresses made of "moonlight cloth."

Although the dress in Saint John is better constructed than others housed in museums in Toledo and Munich, there are "a few issues with it."

"The glass is very fragile at the points where the folds are: the hems, the cuffs, and the bodice, the braided glass trim," Larocque said.

While fragile, the dress is also extremely beautiful. It "shimmers, a little bit like watered silk," he said.

But the texture is decidedly un-silky, according to Larocque.

"I suspect that it would have felt something like wearing fibreglass," he said, as well as being "extremely labour-intensive and expensive to produce."

Mysterious singer

Ellene Jaqua, an American actress and vocalist, bought the dress at the Exposition Universelle and was photographed wearing it around 1902.

Little else is known about Jaqua.

"She is proving an elusive character," said Larocque.

Whatever else remains unknown about Jaqua, she clearly possessed a fashion-forward sensibility.

Under the gaslights typically used to illuminate stages at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, said Larocque, the dress would have shifted in colour and looked "very, very interesting."

The dress was donated to the New Brunswick Museum in 1930 by renowned magician and stage performer William Hewitt Mercer, a former resident of Saint John.

What his connection was to Jaqua, if any, remains lost to history.

Stretching the limits of material

Charlotte Holzer, a PhD candidate at the Technical University of Munich, has travelled to Saint John to study the dress.

She said the example at the museum is unique in that manufacturers "worked with the glass fabric and not in a traditional way of tailoring, which is why it's in better condition," said Holzer.

That being said, the dress is still extremely fragile.

Although the thin, hand-drawn glass fibres are flexible, "they are brittle when you apply pressure at one point," she said.

Holzer, and conservators at the New Brunswick Museum are studying how the the dress might be displayed "in the way it was intended to be worn," said Larocque.

It's unknown if or when the dress will be displayed.

The dress is both an aesthetic feat, and an attempt to "stretch the bounds of technology," said Larocque.

"It speaks to establishing a challenge, and attempting to fulfil it," he said.

"It also talks about innovation, and new ways to use materials, and stretching the boundaries of what a material is capable of."