Versatile Fashion: Mix-and-Match Separates

Diane Shewchuk, Curator

In October 2017, the Albany Instituted opened the exhibition Well-Dressed in Victorian Albany: 19th Century Fashion from the Albany Institute Collection. Fifty dresses were selected for the exhibition – almost all were two-piece, comprising a bodice and skirt. Some of the highlighted fashions included additional pieces that were left in storage. The idea of mix-and-match separates did not begin in 1972 when the Garanimals brand began selling mix-and-match children’s clothing, but about one hundred years before then.

In Paris, during the second half of the nineteenth century, celebrated couturier Charles Frederick Worth pioneered the idea of creating an outfit by mixing and matching bodices and skirts. His elite clientele changed their clothing several times a day depending on the activity being performed. Interchangeable pieces of a garment were cut from a single length of fabric and stitched into outfits that may have included a single skirt with two bodices: one long-sleeved, high necked for daywear and a short-sleeved version with low neckline for eveningwear. These desirable and versatile creations could be worn as afternoon or walking ensembles and then transformed into ball gowns by simply changing bodices.

Brown & Gray Walking Suit

Before striking out on his own, Worth was in business with Otto Bobergh between 1857 and 1870.  The Albany Institute owns rare examples made during this partnership including a four-piece silk dress (skirt, jacket-like bodice, day bodice, and belt) in a sophisticated combination of brown and gray. Although first purchased around 1869 by Mary Augusta Green DeCamp Corning (1843-1935), the pieces were altered around 1874 so what we see today is a remade dress.

Brown and Gray Walking Suit by Charles Frederick Worth and Otto Bobergh, Silk, 1869-1874 (remade) Gift of the estate of Maurice Moore, in memory of his wife, Mary DeCamp Banks Moore, 1972.95.9A+

We exhibited the outfit showing the long jacket-like bodice. However when we had all of the dresses photographed for a future publication, we photographed the other bodice as seen here. A matching wide belt with large bow also survives and would have provided a lovely transition between the two pieces.


Day bodice by Worth & Bobergh
Label on waist tape

Violet & White Dress

The exhibition also included a white, two-piece dress made of printed silk with a design of sprinkled violets made around 1899. The outfit entered our collection with two matching bodices.  When Ethelyn Corinne Hunter (1877-1962) ordered this dress, she probably purchased extra fabric so when styles changed she was able to have another up-to-date bodice made to go with the same skirt. The silhouette of the skirt did not noticeably change during those few years. We exhibited the outfit with the earlier bodice which was sewn to look like a jacket edged with lace worn over a tucked and ruffled blouse that pouches over the waist and we photographed the other one as seen here. The second bodice resembles a blouse with a lace yoke.

Violet and White Dress by an unknown maker, silk, c.1899 Gift of Reynolds Holding, Hunter Holding, and William Holding, 1963.64.2.A & C
Second bodice

Brown & Plaid Day Ensemble

One of the most eye-catching and unique ensembles in the exhibition was a brown and plaid day dress made by one of the most prominent haute couture houses in Paris, Ernest Raudnitz. The bodice is dominated by leg-of-mutton sleeves that look like deflated balloons. We did not exhibit the matching semi-circular capelet that would have graced the shoulders of the wearer. These photographs show the dress from the back (because that wasn’t easily visible in the exhibition and we think you should see the amazing fluting of the skirt) without the capelet and from the front with the capelet. Sadly, we do not know who wore this indescribable outfit.

Brown and Plaid Day Ensemble without Capelet by Ernest Raudnitz, silk, wool, cotton, c.1895, U1973.73.A-.B
With capelet

Photographs by  Michael Fredericks

Published March 27, 2020