Empress Eugénie’s Dress – Collaboration and Loan to the V&A

In 2017 we were approached with a request by the Victoria and Albert Museum, which was working in collaboration with the Royal Opera House, London to present a landmark exhibition Opera: Passion, Power and Politics. They asked to borrow an evening bodice worn by the Empress Eugénie to be the main exhibit in the Paris section. I suggested that a replica matching skirt be made to fit the bodice and they agreed to pay Luca Costigliolo to make it – providing we provided the materials.

Empress Eugenie 1.png

The exhibition ran from September 30, 2017 to February 25, 2018 and was the first to open in the new large exhibition space at the V&A – The Sainsbury Gallery. The exhibition attracted 143,709 visitors. For such a co-production, the Bowes agreed that the dress could then go on tour with the exhibition after its time at the V&A in London.

John Bowes’ subscription to the Paris Opera for an opera box in 1861 and an enamel bracelet – a piece of Joséphine’s jewellery were also loaned to the exhibition from our archive.

In making the skirt we chose to digitally print the floral pattern onto the fabric, rather than to have it woven as time was of the essence. Leon Maurice, senior lecturer at the School of Design, at Northumbria University, was able to digitally work out the pattern repeat, leading to his creating a digital print of meandering trails of flowers to mirror the woven chiné pattern of the bodice, a technique previously untried. The next step was to source the silk fabric from Como in Luca’s native Italy, which was then printed by the Centre for Advanced Textiles at Glasgow School of Art, using Leon’s digital design.

The tour began at the Royal Opera House in Muscat, Oman (January 17 – March 14, 2019). For the demount, I flew out to oversee the packing as there was a problem with the crate being too big to go upright in the aeroplane to Madrid. As I did not want the mannequin to be undressed, it was necessary to devise a system to lie her down, without crushing the skirt. This was achieved and the visit to Muscat was very interesting – The Royal Opera House, the Grand Mosque and the National Museum all newly built and all very shiny – no expense spared by the Sultan!

The exhibition opened in Caixa Forum, Madrid on April 26 and runs until August 11 then it’s off to Barcelona on September 17 until January 26, 2020). As Eugénie was Spanish, those cities have chosen the image of the complete dress, provided by the Bowes for the Opera exhibition catalogue, as their main publicity image on their transport systems!

Luca Costigliolo

Luca Costigliolo, in February 2017, making the skirt to match Empress Eugenie’s bodice before it went on loan to the V&A. In the background is the mannequin with the crinoline and petticoat already completed to give the skirt the correct fashionable shape.

Empress Eugenie 2

Eugénie María de Montijo de Guzmán, (1826-1920), was the daughter of a Spanish Nobleman who had fought on the side of Napoleon I (portrait hanging in the picture gallery at Bowes) during the Peninsular War in Spain.

Napoleon I’s grandson, Louis-Napoléon, married Eugénie in 1853 after becoming the emperor Napoleon III, making Eugénie empress of France (1853–70).

With thanks to The Friends of The Bowes Museum.

Article by: Joanna Hashagen, Curator of Fashion & Textiles, extracted from Bowes Arts the magazine of The Friends of The Bowes Museum, Summer 2019/ No 75


For more information, or to become a Friend of The Bowes Museum and receive a free copy of Bowes Arts, please follow the link: https://www.thebowesmuseum.org.uk/Friends/Membership-Benefits


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