Woman's Cocktail Dress, Ceil Chapman
Ceil Chapman (nee Cecilia Mitchell, 1912-1979) worked in New York City as a designer from the 1940s through the 1960s. After working on Fifth Avenue for over seven years, in about 1940 Chapman briefly entered into business with Gloria (Morgan) Vanderbilt, (mother of fashion designer Gloria L. Vanderbilt) and the elder Vanderbilt’s identical twin sister Thelma (Viscountess Furness) under a label called Her Ladyship Gowns (Vintage Fashion Guild, 2010). She then became a designer with her husband, Samuel Chapman, whom she had married in 1938. Although they divorced in 1950, Samuel continued to be a part of the business throughout the decade. The label and cocktail-dress style of this garment indicate that it was made during this time in Chapman’s career.
The original owner of the dress was Ruth Eileen Wade, a Conover Cover Girl model working in the 1950s. It is unknown if Wade ever worked for Ceil Chapman as a model. The dress was donated by Ms. Wade’s daughter, Mrs. Diana Crane Kittleson. It appears that the dress was well-loved, as it has occasional staining, nicks in the weave, and stretched-out seams.
The dress is made from a navy blue rayon taffeta. In the 1920s, rayon was known as "artificial silk" due to its luster and silk-like feel, and popular because of its lower price. (Keist, 2012). A fiber analysis confirms the dress to be made from rayon.
The unlined cocktail dress has both hand and machine sewing. The fitted bodice uses plastic bones to give it structure. The hand-hemmed circle skirt falls to below the knees. A zipper on the proper left side helps the wearer slip into the dress.
The highlight of the design are the petals and leaves that are meant to stand up and rest against the skin, surrounding the neck. These petals have a distinct decorative element of machine-sewn narrow tucks that imitate the veins of a leaf and add an element of dimension. Ceil Chapman used the petal and leaf design in other garments, including as a detachable skirt on a red, form-fitting cocktail dress with label offered at the auction site Timeless Vixen, and as decorations around the neckline of a similar, short-sleeved dress, also with a label, found on etsy.
This dress functions as a feminine, fun, party dress styled in the classic 1950s silhouette. These dresses had full skirts with several layers, a direct reflection of the end of war-time rationing after WWII. Such an opportunity allowed women to play with as much material as they wanted, resulting in flirty, flippy skirts (History, 2010). It was an exciting time to be alive, and these dresses reflected that idea. This Chapman dress in particular expresses a mature and sleek style, evocative of a sophisticated woman. It is likely this dress was worn at many parties, where both merrymaking and networking occurred.
The cocktail dress is synonymous with the concepts of good times and femininity that surrounded women during this time. Good times, because house parties were a popular trend, and femininity because women were leaving the workforce to once again become homemakers and mothers.
In today’s culture, people attribute different meanings to the cocktail dress. However, femininity is still a popular reason for why people don these dresses. This style of dress is heavily associated with traditionally feminine roles; the cinched waist that creates an hourglass look is evocative of a female body (Vintage Dancer, 50s Skirt Styles). People still want to wear this style of dress, drawing inspiration from it to look and feel feminine. There are those who believe that these dresses reflect “traditional values” such as becoming a mother, which is desirable to some women. Others might be interested in this dress for the way it moves and fits, striking a balance of fun and refinement.
This cocktail dress is a wonderful looking-glass nearly 70 years into the past. It is easily imagined hugging the bodice of a stylish woman and moving while she walked among her peers, a common sight in the 1950s. Today, we have the privilege of being able to study this garment to better understand not only the parties this dress has been to, but we also get to study the construction of the garment to understand past trends. Overall, with this dress, we get a better understanding of the social climate of the 1950s.
Etsy. Stunning 1950s Leaf Applique Ceil Chapman Dress. Etsy.
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Keist, C. N. (2012, April 30). Rayon and its impact on the fashion industry at its introduction,1910-1924. Iowa State University Digital Repository. https://lib.dr.iastate.edu/etd/11072/.
Morris, B. (1979, July 14). CElL CHAPMAN DIES; DESIGNER OF GOWNS. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/1979/07/14/archives/ceil-chapman-dies-designer-of-gowns-known-for-glamorous-party.html.
Razorwire Media Inc. 1950's Ceil Chapman Merlot Red Silk Tiered Petal Detachable-Skirt Cocktail Dress. Timeless Vixen. https://www.timelessvixen.com/ceil-chapman-1950-s-ceil-chapman-merlot-red-silk-tiered-petal-detachable-skirt dress.html.
Vintage Dancer. 1950s History of Prom, Party, and Formal Dresses. Vintage Dancer. https://vintagedancer.com/1950s/1950s-prom-dresses-history/.
Vintage Dancer. 50s Skirt Styles: Poodle Skirts, Circle Skirts, Pencil Skirts 1950s. Vintage Dancer. https://vintagedancer.com/1950s/1950s-fashion-history-skirts/.
Vintage Fashion Guild. (2010, August 4). Ceil Chapman. Vintage Fashion Guild. https://vintagefashionguild.org/label-resource/chapman-ceil/.
Vintage Vixen Clothing. 1950s Fashion History. Vintage Vixen Clothing LLC.https://www.vintagevixen.com/pages/1950s-fashion-history.