Sequined tulle evening gown, c.1900
The undocumented oral provenance accompanying the dazzling gown stated it belonged to Sarah Bernhardt, "the most famous actress the world has ever known." The boldly graphic design, with elaborate sequin embellishment, would have been the perfect backdrop for her dramatic personality.
Bernhardt's life was lived like a theatrical role. She slept in a coffin to better understand her tragic roles. Her vivid imagination, with its resulting distortions of real life, caused Alexandre Dumas to describe her as a liar.
Sarah Bernhardt, c.1880
The two-piece gown has a bodice of beige lace with a black sequined tulle overlay. The sequined tulle skirt has a lovely back train. Both pieces are lined with cream colored taffeta. The bodice has a ruched velvet cummerbund (boned) and closes in back with hooks. The skirt has a ruffled hem border of black lace and also closes in back with hooks.
The relined bodice no longer has bones. In all other aspects, the gown is true to the period. This is a plus for the style purist who values design integrity but has found that all too often "restored" pieces have been remodeled.
The provenance is persuasive on several counts. An avid collector of couture, Bernhardt was the most fashionable global celebrity of the 19th century. Charles Worth personally designed stage costumes and much of her personal wardrobe.
Bernhardt was acutely conscious of the latest trends in couture. Her costumes for the hit play La Tosca (1887) brought Empire silhouette dresses back into style. Finally, this is exactly the type of highly dramatic evening gown that "The Divine Sarah" favored.
Our scintillating gown stands on its own as an exemplar of turn-of-the-century high style fashion. If, in addition, the purchaser can document the Bernhardt connection, then the value would be closer to $6800 than $1950.
The condition is almost excellent. There are a few breaks in the lace hem flounce and also in the tulle sleeve bands. Other than an occasional missing sequin, the gown is remarkably intact.
It measures: 36" bust, 23" waist, 15 1/2" from shoulder to waist, and 42" skirt-front length—longer in back.