A 5-Minute Guide to Callot Soeurs Couture

When a young painting conservator from New York University happened upon some Louis Vuitton trunks in a 15th-century Florentine villa, she could not believe what was inside.

Undisturbed for almost 90 years were the most beautiful dresses she had ever seen, each with the label “Callot Soeurs”.

This was no ordinary find. Not many Callot Soeurs dresses have survived in such pristine condition.

They belonged to Hortense Mitchell Acton, an heiress from Chicago, married to Arthur Acton, a successful Anglo-Italian art collector and dealer.

Chicago heiress Hortense Mitchell Acton. Acton Art Collection - Villa La Pietra
Chicago heiress Hortense Mitchell Acton. Acton Art Collection – Villa La Pietra

Mrs Acton had been a valued client of Callot Soeurs from the moment they opened their couture house in 1895.

The Callot sisters—Marie Gerber, Marthe Bertrand, Régine Tennyson-Chantrelle, and Joséphine Crimont—rose to become the premier dressmaking house of the Belle Époque.

After losing Joséphine to suicide in 1897, Marie, Marthe and Régine continued to run the business.

Vogue magazine called them the Three Fates, and declared they were “foremost among the powers that rule the destinies of a woman’s life and increase the income of France.”

1920s. Green and Pink Silk. Passementerie tassels composed of rhinestones, pearls and beads that hang from either shoulder. Acton Art Collection - Villa La Pietra
1920s. Green and Pink Silk. Passementerie tassels composed of rhinestones, pearls and beads that hang from either shoulder. Acton Art Collection – Villa La Pietra

Among the first of the design houses to reject the corset, Callot Soeurs knew what women wanted—more freedom of movement, fluid lines, and exquisite detail.

In a male dominated business, the sisters stood out by including the word “Soeurs” (French for sisters) in their label.

For Hortense Acton, Callot Soeurs’ gowns were perfect for throwing parties at La Pietra—the Acton’s Florentine villa. She entertained everyone from Gertrude Stein to Winston Churchill.

La Villa Pietra. Credit sailko
La Villa Pietra. Credit sailko

Just how the dresses survived is somewhat of a miracle.

When the Fascists took over Italy, most of Mrs. Acton’s expatriate friends upped and left.

But not her husband. He was determined to stay, ride out the storm and look after the house and art collection.

1920s. Acton Art Collection - Villa La Pietra
1920s. Acton Art Collection – Villa La Pietra

Poor Hortense Acton stayed with him, only to be arrested and imprisoned. The villa and art collection were confiscated.

As if from a scene out of the Sound of Music, both Actons eventually managed to escape through Switzerland.

Perhaps overlooked … perhaps fate .. these incredible gowns somehow survived.

Today, they form part of a collection at La Pietra which was bequeathed to New York University in 1994.

1920s. Acton Art Collection - Villa La Pietra
1920s. Acton Art Collection – Villa La Pietra

Several other Museums house a collection of Callot Soeurs gowns, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and the Museum of Decorative Arts, Paris.

1915 Callot Soeurs. Silk, metal, pearl, metmuseum
1915 Callot Soeurs. Silk, metal, pearl, metmuseum

In each case, the collections show the signature elements of the house of Callot Soeurs: antique lace trimming, Orientalist textiles, lavish embroidery, and bead- or ribbonwork.

1914 Callot Soeurs. Silk, metal. metmuseum
1914 Callot Soeurs. Silk, metal. metmuseum
1914. Callot Soeurs. Silk, metal. metmuseum
1914. Callot Soeurs. Silk, metal. metmuseum

Exemplifying the fashion aesthetic of the time, this 1914 gown uses multiple layers and textures to give the appearance of an unstructured and spontaneous design.

1914 Callot Soeurs. Silk, metal, rhinestones
1914 Callot Soeurs. Silk, metal, rhinestones

One of Callot Soeurs’s greatest supporters was American socialite Rita de Acosta Lydig, regarded as “the most picturesque woman in America.”

Ordering dozens of dresses at a time, she would design them herself and have them handmade by Callot Soeurs.

So exacting were her tastes that when she discovered her husband was having an affair with a poorly dressed woman, she sent the mistress to Callot Soeurs for new clothing.

She wore a silver Callot Soeurs dress for this 1911 Giovanni Boldini portrait.

Rita de Acosta Lydig by Giovanni Boldini, 1911
Rita de Acosta Lydig by Giovanni Boldini, 1911
1910. Robe du soir, Callot Sœurs, Paris. Satin, tulle, dentelle métallique, broderie de filé, lame or et perles. Coll. UFAC, don Debray
1910. Robe du soir, Callot Sœurs, Paris. Satin, tulle, dentelle métallique, broderie de filé, lame or et perles. Coll. UFAC, don Debray

In Marcel Proust’s second volume of “Remembrance of Things Past”, he asks his girlfriend, “Is there a vast difference between a Callot dress and one from any other shop?” To which she replied, “Why, an enormous difference. Only, alas! What you get for 300 francs in an ordinary shop will cost you two thousand there. But there can be no comparison; they look the same only to people who know nothing about it.”

1925. Callot Soeurs. Cotton, silk, plastic, glass. metmuseum
1925. Callot Soeurs. Cotton, silk, plastic, glass. metmuseum
1925. Callot Soeurs. Cotton, silk, plastic, glass. metmuseum
1925. Callot Soeurs. Cotton, silk, plastic, glass. metmuseum
1900 Callot Soeurs. Silk. metmuseum
1900 Callot Soeurs. Silk. metmuseum
1900 Callot Soeurs. Silk. metmuseum
1900 Callot Soeurs. Silk. metmuseum
1900 Callot Soeurs. Silk. metmuseum
1900 Callot Soeurs. Silk. metmuseum
1913. Woman's Lounging Pajamas. Callot Soeurs. Silk net (tulle) and silk satin (charmeuse) with metallic-thread passementerie and silk tassels
1913. Woman’s Lounging Pajamas. Callot Soeurs. Silk net (tulle) and silk satin (charmeuse) with metallic-thread passementerie and silk tassels
1911. Callot Soeurs. Silk, cotton, metallic thread, metal beads. metmuseum
1911. Callot Soeurs. Silk, cotton, metallic thread, metal beads. metmuseum
1911. Callot Soeurs. Silk, cotton, metallic thread, metal beads. metmuseum
1911. Callot Soeurs. Silk, cotton, metallic thread, metal beads. metmuseum
1911. Callot Soeurs. Silk, cotton, metallic thread, metal beads. metmuseum
1911. Callot Soeurs. Silk, cotton, metallic thread, metal beads. metmuseum
1908 Callot Soeurs. Silk, bead, linen, metal. metmuseum
1908 Callot Soeurs. Silk, bead, linen, metal. metmuseum
1915 Woman's Dress. Callot Soeurs. Linen lace and silk satin with silk-knotted fringe. LACMA
1915 Woman’s Dress. Callot Soeurs. Linen lace and silk satin with silk-knotted fringe. LACMA
Callot Soeurs, evening dress, 1909-1913. Silk satin metallic tulle and silk tulle. Collection UFAC © Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris photo Jean Tholance
Callot Soeurs, evening dress, 1909-1913. Silk satin metallic tulle and silk tulle. Collection UFAC © Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris photo Jean Tholance

Callot Soeurs often used delicate materials in their very feminine creations.

Renowned for their exquisite lacework, such as this black, imbricated leaf pattern overlaid on pale taffeta. Finely embellished with black and silver sequins and rhinestones, this dress was exemplary of fashions in La Belle Époque.

1909. Evening Dress. Callot Soeurs. Black lace, white taffeta, sequins and rhinestones. Museum at FIT
1909. Evening Dress. Callot Soeurs. Black lace, white taffeta, sequins and rhinestones. Museum at FIT

By the Roaring Twenties, Callot Soeurs had branches in Nice, Biarritz, Buenos Aires, and London.

Ladies’ Home Journal of 1922 wrote,

Callot probably has more rich clients than any other establishment in the world. They come from South America, from South Africa, and as far east as Japan.
1926. Women's dresses. Callot Soeurs. LACMA
1926. Women’s dresses. Callot Soeurs. LACMA
1910 Callot Soeurs. Cotton, Silk, metal. metmuseum
1910 Callot Soeurs. Cotton, Silk, metal. metmuseum

One of the twentieth century’s greatest designers—Madeleine Vionnet—was Callot’s head of the workroom, or première, before venturing out on her own.

She considered her time at Callot invaluable later in her career.

Without the example of the Callot Soeurs, I would have continued to make Fords. It is because of them that I have been able to make Rolls RoycesMadeleine Vionnet

And she expressed great respect for the house’s head designer, Madame Gerber.

A true dressmaker and a great lady totally occupied with a profession that consists of adorning women . . . not constructing a costume.Madeleine Vionnet
Madeleine Vionnet, evening dress, Haute couture winter 1935. Silk crêpe. Collection UFAC © Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris. Photo Jean Tholance
Madeleine Vionnet, evening dress, Haute couture winter 1935. Silk crêpe. Collection UFAC © Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris. Photo Jean Tholance

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References

Transatlantic Modernities
Twenty One Dresses by the New Yorker
Metropolitan Museum of Art

David James

David James

I'm an Englishman in Boston. History is a joy—it binds us, it connects us, it guides us. I'm interested in making history more accessible and more fun. Join me on this fantastic voyage through time.