Couture Bodice Discovered in Historic Colorado House
While preserving historic garments in an Edwardian era house at Rock Ledge Ranch in Colorado, I made a thrilling discovery.
From the shelf where it lay, a bundle of sequins and lace peeped out at me in the shadows of a closet. Looking closer, I saw a Gilded Age bodice with delicate lace sleeves and sequins embroidered onto black netting. I could see it was more elaborate than the other garments I had been working with in the house. In fact, it was elegantly and expertly constructed. I ventured a glance inside and found a dressmaker’s label on the Petersham waist tape. “M.A. Connelly 331 5th Ave, N.Y”. In the late 19th century, labels usually only appear in couture clothing. Thus, I supposed the bodice was probably an expensive item in its day. 5th Avenue being synonymous with wealth, I decided to investigate further. Just who was this M.A. Connelly?
Gilded Age New York City Dressmaker
Turns out, she was quite the woman. Mary Ann Hudnett started out in New York City as a young dressmaker. She worked for A. T. Stewart at his Dry Goods Store (reportedly the world’s first department store). He sent her to Paris and London twice a year to collect the latest fashions. Those trips no doubt influenced her own business later, which she started in 1869. Shortly after, she married a Mr. Connelly. Although he died two years later, she continued to use his last name for her business. (She went on to marry Mr. Daniel R. Lyddy, who died in 1887, and then married Mr John F Fitzgerald in 1891.)
M. A. Connelly (also referred to as Mme. Connelly) became one of the prominent dressmakers of Gilded Age New York City. By the 1880s she was dressing the city’s elite, known as “The 400”. This included First Lady Lucy Webb Hayes, for whom Connelly designed a New Year’s Eve gown. Purchasing a custom creation of silk and lace at such an establishment would cost, at minimum, $125 – equivalent to around $3,000 in 2019. Such prestigious fashion was truly a form of art. As surviving garments attest, the construction, material and decoration are of the finest quality. The Sun proclaims in its 1889 article, “Costuming one of “The 400”:
“A fashionable dress is an intricate and elaborate affair, fearfully and wonderfully made, which takes an artist for its construction, and would not be arranged by a novice any more than the Brooklyn Bridge could have been built by a house carpenter.”
However, dressmakers in New York still had to keep up with the latest fashions coming out of Europe. Charles Frederick Worth was still the premier designer in Paris. His designs set the silhouettes, fabrics, and trims of the season. Yet his ideas disseminated to New York through the press and through dressmakers like Connelly, who made gowns imitating Worth. One such Worth gown was worn by a Metropolitan Opera star on stage in 1883. Soon it became a Connelly design for a wedding gown and thereafter, a popular fancy-dress design.
It turns out this may not have been an isolated incident of Connelly using Worth’s designs.
Smuggler of Designer Gowns
On October 16th, 1891, headlines splashed across The Evening Post and The Sun featuring Connelly’s name. Twenty-six Paris gowns valued at between $10,000 and $20,000 ($300,000 – $500,000 in 2019) were seized by the New York Custom House. Packed in three trunks, the gowns – along with lace, gloves and wraps – were reportedly the work of Worth and Felix. The trunks belonged to a Mrs. Mary Minnick, known to be in the employ of Mme. Connelly.
The trunks were strategically packed. Worn house wrappers or old skirts were placed on top of the contraband, so as not to attract attention if the trunks were opened and glanced at. The Sun states, “It doesn’t appear yet who the persons for whom the gowns and wraps were intended, but it is inferred from the costliness of the goods that they may have been meant to adorn some of the Four Hundred”.
Minnick was arrested on charges of smuggling. In a trial in December of that year, a witness produced a cablegram implicating Mme. Connelly. It implied she had sent Minnick to Paris to collect the latest season’s fashions. Further investigation revealed Minnick had previously been a designer for Mme. Donovan, another elite New York dressmaker. Minnick allegedly also copied designs from Paris for Donovan. Mme. Connelly then offered her a higher salary and so became Connelly’s employee.
In January 1892, the United States Grand Jury assembled to discuss the matter. According to an article in The Sun, it seems the dresses were released by a payment of $3,400 in custom duties and a bond of $6,500.
Accomplished Businesswoman and Legendary Dressmaker
Despite this scandal, M. A. Connelly’s business continued to flourish. There were several locations, and the main branch of the establishment moved from 507 W 29th to 311 5th Avenue in 1891. The New York Tribune in 1898 supposed Connelly had by that time accumulated $200,000 ($5.5 million in 2019). It stated “The business is one of the oldest and best known in this line in the city.” Incorporated in October of 1891, the business had an estimated capital stock of $550,000 ($15 million in 2019). The store moved to 9 E 34th St around 1898. It continued for a few years into the early 20th century after Connelly’s death in December 1899.
Though she may not be remembered today, M.A. Connelly certainly was a shrewd and successful business woman for her time. The garments that survive tell the story of her artistry, influence, and eminence in the New York fashion world of the Gilded Age.
With such a prestigious maker, no wonder the bodice I found stood out among the rest. Not much is known about this particular bodice. Judging from the address on the label, it was most likely made between 1891 and 1898. Sadly, the netting has deteriorated substantially. Yet one can still imagine a lady of finery wearing the bodice as it once was – fresh from M. A. Connelly.
To see more examples of M.A. Connelly’s work, visit: