High fashion on a small scale
In a large white-walled room inside PEM’s extensive Collection Center sits approximately 75 scale-model mannequins, each standing 29 inches high and dressed in lavish Victorian and Edwardian-style gowns, waiting patiently to be documented by museum staff.
Nationally-recognized designer John Burbidge created these detailed miniatures for his collection Les Petites Dames de Mode or The Little Ladies of Fashion. When Burbidge’s daughter, Chris Crowley, walked through the doors, her eyes glistened in tears. Seeing the entire collection laid out was overwhelming and left her lost for words.
“These were his passion,” the Danvers native said. “He would love this.”
Her father devoted more than four decades of his life into bringing each of these little ladies to life — a demanding endeavor taking as much as three months to complete a single one.
Each mannequin showcases his exacting attention to detail, from the hand-embroidered hats and fans, to parasols and jewelry pieces. Featuring day, evening, travel and celebratory gowns, the collection captures the epitome of the fashions of the time and exemplifies Burbidge’s technique on a miniature scale.
The eldest of five children, Chris facilitated the donation of her father’s collection to the museum. “In his heart, I think he always wanted them to be at PEM,” she said with a bittersweet smile.
But Burbidge’s story begins well before these little ladies.
Born in 1922, he began his career in fashion covering buttons for dresses for the renowned Priscilla of Boston, advancing quickly to specializing in wedding dress design. Soon he was involved in the creation of a number of high-profile commissions, including bridesmaid dresses for Grace Kelly’s wedding to Prince Rainier of Monaco and Tricia Nixon’s wedding dress worn at her White House Rose Garden ceremony in 1971.
While on leave in Paris at the end of World War II, Burbidge saw Le Théâtre de la Mode, an exhibition of miniature haute-couture fashion promoting the latest designs. Leading French designers used this display to revitalize the fashion industry that was curtailed during the war.
The idea stayed with him long into his retirement. Inspired by a piece of antique fabric or something from his own imagination, he didn’t create the ladies in any particular order, only as Chris put it, “When the magic struck.”
Over time, his collection toured the country, inspiring a book and documentary. The ladies also have a long history with PEM. When the museum was known as the Essex Institute, Burbidge was named Honorary Curator of Costumes and had his daughter model in some of his fashion shows. The Les Petites Dames de Mode collection was exhibited there in the 1970s and ‘80s.
It was easy to take it for granted. He’d make it all look so easy,” Chris added, reminiscing how she frequently visited her parent’s home and saw her dad working in his garage studio. Having raised four girls, he was always mindful of current trends.
One particular mannequin sports a light pink gown with nautical ships in black lace, equipped with interchangeable hair ornaments, a detailed peacock fan and velvet choker necklace. By painting the models’ hands white and adding elastic trim on their forearms, Burbidge created the impression of gloves. He also constructed miniature fashion accessories and furniture for each model to add another layer of historical context. Included within the collection is an antique photo album with family portraits.
The ladies have now found a new home in PEM’s Collection Center where a team is working to photograph and catalogue each item before placing safely in storage. “I know he’s thrilled they’re here at PEM,” Chris added.
Paula Richter, PEM Curator for Exhibitions and Research, noted the designer’s level of detail and incredible dressmaking and millinery skills. She was surprised to learn Burbidge hand-painted each of the model’s faces.
“John Burbidge drew much inspiration from historic fashion,” she noted. “He had a drive to experiment with fashion and spared no effort in creating this collection.”
While he was inspired by fashion periodical magazines, Richter said Burbidge also looked closely at dresses within the museum’s own collection. “One by one, John perfectly conceptualized aspects of historic fashion,” she noted.
Having been acquainted with John and his wife, Cile, for more than 30 years, Richter noted that the couple were active members of the Peabody Essex Museum and also participated in ballroom dancing and fashion organizations such as the Costume Society of America.
For many years, Burbidge created custom evening gowns for his wife to wear to these special events. In the early 1990s and 2000s, the couple donated a selection of these garments and accessories to PEM for its fashion collection.
A passionate partnership
Together for nearly 70 years, Burbidge met his wife at the New England School of Design.
Originally trained as a fashion designer, Cile Burbidge went on to become an award-winning wedding cake designer. Hailed by Julia Child, her cakes became the centerpieces at events, graced the windows of Tiffany’s in New York and were on view at PEM during the 2008 exhibition, Wedded Bliss, The Marriage of Art and Ceremony.
Globally and nationally recognized, the couple’s work has been documented and preserved by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History Archives Center, which also contains original sketches, papers and scrapbooks.
The Les Petites Dames de Mode collection is an important extension of this life-long pursuit of design and creativity inspired in part by the museum’s collection.
Fashion & Design
American Decorative Arts