Stepping back in style

Filoli's centennial celebrates fashion and history

Filoli House and Gardens is celebrating its centennial with special programs and displays designed to whisk visitors back in time to the days of afternoon teas, formal balls and society dinners.

In addition to an outdoor sculpture exhibition, a display of embroidery, and a lineup of jazz concerts, Filoli (located in Woodside and administered by the National Trust for Historic Preservation) is exhibiting a collection of vintage clothing owned by the women who lived in one of the most renowned estates on the Peninsula.

"Fashionable Filoli," a display of historic costumes placed around the first floor rooms of the main house, consists of 20 period dresses that were borrowed from Sarah Bourn Hayne Simpson, a descendent of Filoli's original owner, William Bourn. Julie DeVere, who is Filoli's head curator, initially approached Simpson in order to borrow some ceramics for a cabinet display. Simpson asked her if she would like to see the clothing collection that she has been maintaining for more than 40 years.

"When she opened the door I was stunned," DeVere said. "I had no idea she had this collection or that it was so extensive."

DeVere made her selections based on condition of the fragile pieces and whether they could be exhibited safely, while telling the story of the men and women who wore them. The costumes are displayed on specially created mounts that had to take into account corsets, bustles, crinolines and lots of buttons.

"My assistant and I spent nearly 24 hours making the mounts and other preparations for each garment," she said.

"Downton Abbey" fans know that frequent, complicated clothing changes were a fundamental part of the "upstairs" lifestyle, the ladies and gentlemen requiring the assistance of faithful servants. William and Agnes Bourn, who oversaw the building of the Georgian Revival house from 1915-17, had an active social life that included frequent entertaining. Their guests enjoyed concerts, formal dinners, poker games and ballroom dances, all of which required special attire.

Entering the reception room, visitors encounter a vintage 1916 dress once owned by William's mother, Sarah Chase Bourn. It is a late Edwardian gown of gray raw silk with elegant silver-and-black metallic thread accents, perfect for a matriarch hostess. The gentleman's tuxedo, borrowed from the San Mateo County Historical Museum, is suitably formal with tails and cummerbund.

Most of the clothing is unlabeled, but some pieces came from the White House Department Store in San Francisco, known for featuring the highest quality fashions imported from France.

In the dining room there is an elaborate display that recreates the "Drunks Dinner" of November, 1933. Thanks to historic photographs, the table and sideboard are arranged just as they were during the event, which was a celebration of the repeal of Prohibition. By this time the Bourns were invalids, but William's sister, Ida Bourn, played hostess for the evening. Her dress, a clingy cream-colored silk evening gown adorned with hundreds of glass beads, looks elegant and surprisingly contemporary. In the same room, a display case holds an ivory gown owned by another sister, Maude Bourn Hayne. With layers upon layers of hand-worked lace, it is too fragile to be displayed on a mannequin but reveals the incredible time and effort required to create it.

Leisurely afternoons might have been spent in the drawing room playing cards or enjoying impromptu piano concerts. A late afternoon dress of silk chiffon, embellished with a satin sash and tiny pearls would have been just right. And if you wanted to dash outside for a cigarette, the Egyptian-inspired "flapper coat" with metal strips hand-woven into the fabric would have been warm (but extremely heavy).

DeVere points out that the years represented in the clothing, from the turn of the century to the 1980s, reflect the evolution of fashion and the changing social and cultural mores. The early dresses are, on average, a size six and many of the waists measure 24 inches. A formal black dress in the reception room accentuates the "hourglass" figure so longed for at the time. With its flowing skirt of ebony glass beads, the dress is elegant and stylish but would have been impossible to sit down in.

"Some of these dresses have dozens of button and snap closures that absolutely required women to have the assistance of a lady's maid," DeVere said.

The dresses in the mural-filled ballroom reflect the slow transition from women being tightly bound and corseted to dressing for comfort and convenience. A White House day dress, dated around 1880, is a lushly layered garment, with a deep purple bodice made of velvet and a silk sateen skirt. The tiny waist is achieved by being very tightly corseted. A corresponding label and diagram explain just what such compression did to the female anatomy, causing distortion to the rib cage and squeezing the diaphragm.

"You can clearly see why fainting couches came into being," noted DeVere.

And lest we forget the "downstairs" residents, uniforms worn by the chef and maids can be seen in the kitchen. Because none of the servants' clothing survived, these garments were faithfully recreated from archival photographs.

How does Simpson feel about her ancestor's clothing, which she so carefully tended, being on view to the public?

"I think they are all absolutely beautiful and I am thrilled that people are getting the chance to enjoy them," she said.

Info: "Fashionable Filoli" will be on display until Sept. 25. General admission is $20 adults/$17 seniors/$10 children and normal hours are Tuesday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. (open until 7:30 p.m. on certain summer evenings). A special evening event, Step Back in Time, is planned for Friday July 15, 5-8 p.m. Music and attire of the 1920s will be featured and guests are encouraged to wear period dress. Tickets are $40 for members and $45 for nonmembers, with advanced purchase required. Tickets can be purchased online at Filoli or by calling Filoli 650-364-8300, ext. 508. Filoli is located at 86 CaƱada Road, Woodside.

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