Inside the Collection

Who wore this Dior?

Women's suit by Christian Dior for the Spring 1950 ‘Vertical Line’ collection
Designed by Chrisitan Dior. Collection, Powerhouse Museum.

Haute Couture (or “High Fashion”), as the name suggests, is not for just anyone. It is the pinnacle of fashion, made specifically to the exact dimensions of the wearer, in high quality, luxurious fabrics, virtually all by hand (the seams are machine sewn), and a single garment can take up to 4 months to make. But, when it comes to Haute Couture, you’re not just buying a piece of clothing; you’re buying a piece of art!

So who wore this Dior?

It is a three piece suit of blue wool serge designed by Christian Dior for the Spring 1950 ‘Vertical Line’ collection. It features a bodice with long pencil skirt and swing back jacket. The Museum purchased the outfit from a vendor in London in 1994, who informs us that it was owned by a female member of the Firestone family (founders of the Firestone tyre company) of Detroit, USA.

Of the women in this family, Mrs Elizabeth Parke Firestone is the most thought-of for her expensive taste and fashion sense. Elizabeth (1897-1990) was married to Harvey S. Firestone Jr, son of the founder of the Firestone Tyre and Rubber Company. Her daughter, Martha Firestone, married William Clay Ford Snr, grandson of Henry Ford.

Mrs Elizabeth Parke FirestoneMrs Elizabeth Parke Firestone, Image courtesy of The Henry Ford Research Center

Between 1915 and 1975, Elizabeth acquired an impressive wardrobe of Haute Couture garments, many of which are now in the collection of the Benson Ford Research Center in Dearborn, Michigan, and gained a reputation for being one of America’s “best dressed women”. Dior and Balenciaga were her preferred designers and amongst the collection is a 1952 Christian Dior red silk faille dress with matching shoes, a sketch for a gown sent for approval in 1956 (Elizabeth often purchased garments without ever having tried them on!) and a stunning 1953 Balenciaga linen print dress.

Some research with the Benson Ford Research Center, however, was unfortunately unable to confirm if Elizabeth was, in fact, the owner of this suit. Their collection of Firestone Family Papers includes several folders of correspondence with Christian Dior, but alas, without any reference to this 1950 piece. However, not all of Elizabeth’s couture collection went to the Center. Some were also sold at auction and some were donated to colleges in Ohio.

Mr and Mrs Harvey S Firestone Image courtesy of The Henry Ford Research Center

In the meantime, if anyone can shed light on the Firestone family and this particular Dior suit, please let us know.

Next week, I will be taking you inside the suit – looking at the intimate details normally obscured to the eye – and the workmanship involved in making a couture suit, like this, sit absolutely perfectly on the wearer!

6 responses to “Who wore this Dior?

  • It’s exciting to see the research you do to build a personal picture and story of what happened and what was involved. It’s a challenging experience seeing a collection being split between bidders, especially if you are the one bidding. The acquisition leaves you wondering many things. But perhaps a collection owned by different people will lead you down an exciting path of coming in contact with many different interesting facts and people that help build a richer picture of the person you are trying to identify. Good luck with the exciting detective work.

  • There’s something worth mentioning which may create some ambiguity in determining if Elizabeth Firestone procured this Dior suit in 1950.

    In 1950 there were actually two well known Elizabeth Firestones.

    Firstly, the one you mention above. Elizabeth Parke Firestone who would have been known in newspaper and society circles as Mrs. Harvey S. Firestone, Jr. according to the etiquette of the age.

    Secondly, there was the daughter of Elizabeth Parke Firestone and Harvey Firestone, Jr., the one who was named Elizabeth Chambers Firestone (1922 – 1989).

    In 1950, Elizabeth the younger was 26 years old, and a noted composer and pianist. She had a romance that year with film actor Peter Lawford, of which her parents disapproved.

    Elizabeth the younger also spent part of 1950 in Madrid – not too far from Paris!

    Here is a 1949 photograph of the Firestones. Elizabeth the younger is wearing a mighty fine dress, my guess is she is coutured up to her eyeballs.

    http://books.google.com/books?id=9kwEAAAAMBAJ&lpg=PA51&ots=Xx9C8G85qz&dq=elizabeth%20c.%20firestone&pg=PA51#v=onepage&q=elizabeth%20c.%20firestone&f=false

    In 1954, Elizabeth the younger married Charles F. Willis Jr., then a member of the White House staff of President Eisenhower. Again, according to the etiquette of the day, she would then have been known as Mrs. Charles F. Willis, Jr. or Elizabeth Firestone Willis. Mr. Willis went on to found Alaska Airlines. They divorced in, I think, 1973.

    Of course, it is possible to approach this question from another angle. From the seller. I believe there are some Christian Dior Archives:

    http://www.vam.ac.uk/vastatic/microsites/1486_couture/exhibHighBarSuit2.php

    It may well be that Dior’s records of his 1950 customers still exist.

    You’ll need someone who can read French. My bag is packed and my passport is ready.

    Oh, and another possibility may strengthen the provenance. Can you reverse engineer to compare the size measurements of this Dior suit with other 1950 items from those proven to have belonged to Elizabeth Firestone?

    I like the way they display her shoes:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/laughingsquid/19270375/

  • Bob – thanks for that very thorough reply. Funnily enough, I am currently awaiting to receive the measurements for a number of comparable couture garments in the Benson Ford Research Center belonging to Mrs Harvey S Firestone Jnr which will, as you suggest, help to determine the suit’s owner. In the meantime, yes I agree, we can’t really discount the daughter, Elizabeth, as being the owner. Her reputation is not as widespread for her wardrobe in the literature, but this, of course, does not mean she didn’t have couture garments. I’m also currently onto the Dior archives, but have been waiting for a reply for some time now – so, yes, keep that bag ready and stay on alert! I will be sure to keep you updated as I receive any further information.

  • why not contact the 3rd elizabeth?
    she is
    elizabeth willis leatherman
    and always eager to talk about her mother and grandmother (who raised her).

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