Connected \\ June 5, 2019
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.
John Burbidge commissioned a Woburn-based company to create the custom fiberglass mannequins, which he further enhanced by hand-painting each face.
“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.
Burbidge spent most of his retirement creating dozens of his miniature mannequins, each fastened with tulle underskirts, stockings and shoes beneath lavish gowns.
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.
Chris Crowley recently visited PEM’s Collection Center to see her father’s collection and share stories about her favorite memories growing up and watching him design.
A detailed look at one of Burbidge’s miniatures with nautical ships in black lace along the gown’s hem, which was a favorite of the Collection Management Team.
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.
A skilled millinery, Burbidge also researched period-specific hairstyles suitable to each mannequin. All photos by Bob Packert/PEM.
“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.
Cile Burbidge’s detailed wedding cake, Architectural Fantasy Cake, 2007, on display in PEM’s Wedded Bliss exhibition. Photo courtesy of the artist.