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High Style on Prospect Avenue

The Darien Historical Society displays sumptuous costumes from its post-Civil War collection.

The gracious homes along Prospect Avenue have changed little since they were built in the post-Civil War construction boom, but the fashions of the ladies promenading along the avenue have come a long way, indeed.

In its current exhibition—"The Ladies of Prospect Avenue 1867-1900"—the Darien Historical Society charts that evolution, tracing changes in ladies' fashion since Melville E. Mead, a New York transplant, created Darien's first subdivision on Prospect Avenue in 1865.

In the Society's Schofield Barn, eight pert mannequins pose in sumptuous silks, taffetas, lace, and velvet, flaunting the Parisian fashions of the day as interpreted by accomplished seamstresses at their Singer sewing machines.

Darien was mostly fields and farms until the arrival of the railroad in 1848, but post-war prosperity brought droves of newcomers from the city who wanted to settle in the countryside.

Mead, an insurance broker, was living in a Victorian home on Sedgwick Avenue when he bought up eight acres between Brookside Avenue and Mansfield Avenue for $3,500. He divided the land into 24 building lots, each selling for $250, nearly doubling his investment. It was the beginning of a trend.

The exhibit references seven of the Prospect Avenue homes representing five successive styles of that era: Italianate, Second Empire, Queen Anne, Vernacular, and Neo-Classical revival. Photos of the historic houses are juxtaposed with the mannequins to evoke the streetscape in the last quarter of the 19th century, when the ladies took to walking, entertaining and receiving guests.

And in those days, walking was no casual matter.

For the fashion-conscious of a certain class, walking required a "walking suit." The example selected for the exhibit—taken from the society's rich collection of 3,000 items—is a two-piece, floor-length number made of sapphire blue velvet and three-quarter sleeves, popular again today.

The wearer's Barbie-doll figure is encased in elaborate undergarments that squeeze and shape, creating a dainty silhouette marked with a tiny waist and a prominent derriere.

The unnatural hump just below the waist in the rear represents "the final stage of the bustle," according to the exhibit's program notes. "It extended horizontally from the small of the back and was supported by an intricate system of tapes, with a metal coil device attached to the waist."

An earlier iteration of the bustle greets exhibit-goers as they enter the barn. Standing in a straw hat with royal blue ribbon is a young athlete decked out for a tennis match. Her attire consists of a floor-length, two-piece cotton outfit in blue and white stripes with white lace at the hems—fitted snugly—and an ample bustle, giving the impression that the young lady is astride the rear mount of a horse.

Her tennis boots are made of canvas with rubber soles—and 2-inch heels. In her white-gloved hands is an antique tennis racket loaned to the exhibit by town historian Marian Castell.

Scarlett O'Hara would be right at home in any of the gowns on display, but she would be best suited to the blue silk taffeta afternoon dress, circa 1868, with its moss fringe trim creating a long peplum over the full draped skirt, a matching blue velvet hat, and satin ribbon streamers. It's easy to imagine the get-up in emerald green, with a black-and-white photo of Tara mounted on the wall.

The earliest fashion on display, dated 1867, was worn on honeymoon in Paris by a relative of the donor, Mrs. R.O White. The "reception" dress is in lavender silk taffeta with an impossibly tiny waist. The mannequin clutches a silk taffeta parasol with a handle carved of ivory taken from an elephant in Africa or Asia.

Under a glass case are examples of the undergarments that fashion employed to "tyrannize" women—as the exhibit puts it—into unnatural shapes to present a pleasing silhouette in society.

The boned corsets so constricted breathing and movement that the fashion industry introduced the "S-curve" corset, accentuating a forward-thrust bust and graceful silhouette. The style is epitomized in the c. 1901 "afternoon dress," a lacy, light concoction suitable for a summer garden party in the Gilded Age.

The exhibit is lovingly curate by Darienite Babs White, a former fashion artist at Women's Wear Daily. Each item on display has been documented as to donor and, where possible, original wearer.

"The Ladies of Prospect Avenue 1867-1900" is on display now at the Darien Historical Society (45 Old Kings Highway South). For more information, call 203-655-9233 or email info@darienhistorical.org.

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