The V&A owns nine Delphos gowns, all of which are currently in storage at the Clothworkers’ Centre. We have a range of shapes and colours, including apricot, white, black, and black with gold fleur-de-lis. These dresses are really popular with our visitors, and I’m not surprised about this.
They’re timelessly elegant, I think. Although Delphos were made during the first half of the twentieth century, they wouldn’t look out of place today. This may be largely because they were modelled on chitons, garments worn during a period which has always exerted a fairly strong influence over Western society: the classical Greek world. More specifically, Mariano Fortuny, the Spanish fashion designer who thought up the Delphos dress, was inspired by the ancient Greek statue the Charioteer of Delphi, a famous bronze statue which represents a charioteer holding reins, wearing an Ionic chiton. Ionic chitons can be set apart from their simpler Doric equivalents by their sleeves.
Delphos dresses are revolutionary as well as elegant. First produced in 1907, and popular until around mid-century, Delphos gowns were a major departure from both fashionable Western womenswear of the Victorian period and most early twentieth century women’s clothes. These pleated silk gowns were unusually simple. Most are patternless and only decorated with a restrained number of functional glass beads (the weight of the beads helps Delphos dresses to hang correctly, and they sometimes work as fastenings). And these flexible silk gowns were strikingly light and non-restrictive, especially compared to garments such as the narrow hobble skirts that were in fashion in the years leading up to the First World War. Further, Delphos would not have looked right worn over the highly structured female undergarments, such as corsets, popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, so these gowns tended to be sported with very little beneath. They were associated, therefore, with both functionality and comfort, and sensuality. Fortuny’s Delphos gowns would have stood out in their day, and they can be seen to have blurred gender boundaries, not only because they resembled contemporary menswear in being relatively simple and liberating, but also because they were inspired by a statue of a young man.
While Delphos dresses were undeniably radical, it should be emphasised that they were not the only examples of revolutionary Western womenswear made and worn around the turn of the century. Promoters of what was known as Rational dress advocated and often wore newly practical womenswear throughout the latter decades of the nineteenth century and at the start of the twentieth. These dress reformers, most of whom were British or American, were particularly interested in bifurcated legwear, like the feminists who embraced Bloomers (full trousers gathered at the ankles and named after American suffragist Amelia Bloomer) around 1850. Other women, and men, who took issue with fashionable womenswear of the period favoured aesthetic dress, also known as artistic dress. Those who designed aesthetic womenswear were inspired by Pre-Raphaelite and aesthetic paintings which depicted women in flowing, historically-inspired dresses made from soft, subtly-coloured fabrics. Fortuny’s Delphos dresses are very much connected to this latter movement, which continued to flourish well into the twentieth century. It is no coincidence that the white Delphos gown housed at Clothworkers’ belonged to the daughter of Hamo Thorneycroft, a member of the Healthy and Artistic Dress Union, which was founded in 1890. Thorneycroft designed one of the V&A’s aesthetic dresses.
Delphos gowns are even more fluid than most aesthetic garments, and their unusual design makes them really interesting in terms of storage. Whereas most dresses at Clothworkers’ are either hung or kept flat in drawers, our Delphos are stored twisted and then rolled into snail-like shapes. This prevents the pleats from being flattened out and guards against these garments losing their bounce. When brought out for Clothworkers’ appointments these gowns undergo striking transformations. They are transformed again when seen on a body or, in the case of museum-owned Delphos, a mannequin.
If you’re interested in making an appointment to view textiles and fashion objects at the Clothworkers’ Centre, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.