Joséphine: The Woman of Fashion

The Bowes Museum continues its 125th anniversary celebrations with a new display focusing on Joséphine Bowes’ interest in fashion. This in-focus exhibition is expanding one of the themes from the exhibition Joséphine Bowes, a Woman of Taste & Influence shown earlier this year and includes key pieces worn by Joséphine, jewellery and fashion bills from the museum archive. Some pieces from the collection are on show for the first time since the museum opened in 1892.

Portrait of Joséphine Bowes, by Antoine Dury, 1850


‘Mrs Bowes’s Mansion and Museum, Barnard Castle’ The Builder, 1871

The exhibition also includes an evening jacket designed by Elsa Schiaparelli (1937 -1938), a new acquisition purchased with support from the Art Fund’s New Collecting Award. The embroidery is by the Parisian atelier Lesage. Schiaparelli was among the first fashion designers to introduce collections centred on embroidery with diverse motifs. This jacket was acquired as part of a broader scheme to develop a capsule wardrobe of French haute couture, reflecting the taste of Joséphine.

Evening jacket, by Elsa Schiaparelli, 1937-1938
Purchased with Art Fund Support


Detail of jacket. Embroidery by Lesage.

A newly conserved purple silk evening bodice worn by Joséphine will also be shown, alongside a specially commissioned matching skirt, reconstructed by historical and theatrical costumier Luca Costigliolo in an imitation of the woven design of the original bodice. We have worked with a number of additional people on this project including Bischoff Textil St Gallen, Northumbria University and Viviane Chen, freelance costume interpreter.

Joséphine was extremely fashionable and purchased many fine clothes and jewellery during her life. She patronised the leading couturier of the day, Charles Frederick Worth, who dressed Empress Eugénie of France and various European royals. Bills from the museum’s archive demonstrate Joséphine was spending large sums of money on her clothes and accessories.

Joséphine frequently visited a range of shops in Paris; milliners, dressmakers, glove makers, shoe and boot makers and haberdashers. She regularly frequented cloth houses and dressmakers, perhaps with ideas inspired by the fashion illustrations in her magazines, now in the museum library. Sadly most of her clothes have not survived, except for two bodices and a blouse.

Detail of Joséphine’s day bodice, 1860s. This bodice may be one of two remaining pieces of Joséphine’s wardrobe, perhaps left at Streatlam Castle. She visited annually between 1858 and 1865 and then stayed in England from 1869 to 1871.

A Worth bill from 1st June 1872 demonstrates Joséphine’s desire to be ultra-stylish; she spent 11,184 francs at Worth that day, equivalent to around £114,000 today. She bought five gowns – including one of lace and one of black velvet – as well as two scarves and five items of lace.

Worth bill, dated 1872. Museum Archive.

She had plenty of jewellery and appeared to be fond of diamonds. A letter from her friend Madame Cecile Ferrère in 1861 stated: ‘how good and kind you are … I should like to adorn myself with that beautiful belt and your beautiful and numerous jewels’. The belt survives in the museum’s collection and will also be on show. In 1869, John bought her a diamond necklace with thirty-two stones. In 1873 a single diamond cost him 66,000 francs (£667,000). Some of the diamonds were sold later to help pay for the completion of the museum.

This weekend (26/27 August) we will unveil this in-focus display titled Joséphine: The Woman of Fashion. This small exhibition, in the fashion and textile gallery, is one of the ten themes taken from our Spring 2017 exhibition Joséphine Bowes: A Woman of Taste and Influence.

Further reading

19th Century Fashion in Detail, Lucy Johnston, 2016

Fashioning the Bourgeoisie: A History of Clothing in the Nineteenth Century, Philippe Perrot


Hannah Jackson

Assistant Curator (fashion & textiles)


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