Newport’s Preservation Society Costume Exhibit at Rosecliff Traces 20th Century Fashion

As the summer playground to many of America’s wealthiest families, Newport was once a swirl of couture dresses in a seemingly endless string of balls and entertainments. The Preservation Society of Newport County’s annual costume exhibition at Rosecliff (1902) this year highlights 20th century fashion and the way designers marketed changing styles and silhouettes to American consumers. The 11 dresses on exhibit are among the finest garments in the Preservation Society’s collection, from designers such as Chanel, Givenchy and Halston, among others.

Among the highlights of the exhibit is a 1925 evening gown by Callot Soeurs of Paris. With its straight profile, this evening dress epitomized the style of the period. The increasing popularity of automobiles and dance crazes such as the jitterbug necessitated shorter hemlines and ushered in a new silhouette for the 1920s. Heavy corsetting and layers of skirts were out, girdles and bras that flattened out the figure were in.

From the late 1930s to the mid ’40s, dresses were back to having a more defined waist and fuller skirt to emphasize the female figure. The exhibit includes a 1941 tea party dress made of cotton organdy which demonstrates this style.

Additional highlights include a 1965 red skirt suit by Chanel, a 1985 cotton organdy pant suit with glass beads by Halston, and a wool cocktail dress by Givenchy from the 1990s.

The Preservation Society’s costume collection helps to trace the changing role of women in American society over the centuries. The creation of one-of-a-kind garments, known as haute couture, has represented the pinnacle of high fashion since the 19th century. The allure of haute couture still captivates the imagination today; however, due to dwindling markets, collections now include fewer pieces than they did in the early 20th century.

Beginning in the 1960s, designers licensed their names for use on products and expanded their own lines beyond apparel. At the same time, the retail clothing industry diversified, providing more options at different price points. Today, haute couture collections no longer set the standards for how women should dress. Instead, they have evolved into marketing tools that shape a designer’s “brand” and increase sales of affordable products. Some devotees still buy haute couture clothing, but it is a shrinking population.

The exhibit is on display in the Lesley Bogert Crawford costume galleries on the 2nd floor of Rosecliff through November 22. Admission to the exhibit is included with any Rosecliff tour ticket, including multi-house tickets. Rosecliff is open daily for tours from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. through November 22, except when it is closed for the Newport Flower Show June 20-23. Newport Mansions tickets can be purchased online at, or in person at any Preservation Society property.

The Preservation Society of Newport County, Rhode Island is a non-profit organization accredited by the American Alliance of Museums and dedicated to preserving and interpreting the area’s historic architecture, landscapes and decorative arts. Its 11 historic properties—seven of them National Historic Landmarks—span more than 250 years of American architectural and social development.

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