Woman's "Marii" Gown by Mary McFadden
This dress is 55 1⁄4” from the top of the sleeve to the hem of the skirt, with a 20” zipper at the center back. The sleeves are 14 1⁄2” inches long, with the pleated fabric sewn in a way that creates a twisted, tulip-like shape. The neckline is square at both the front and the back. The waistline decoration, over which a belt can be placed, is 15 1⁄2” across the front and 4 1⁄4” wide, in a slightly skewed rectangular shape.
There is also a detachable belt, almost a cummerbund, meant to cover up the waistline decoration for a slightly more subdued style, with pleats running in the horizontal direction. The belt is 35 1⁄2” long from bottom corner to bottom corner. It is 4” wide from top to bottom corner at the end, but throughout the length of the belt, it spans between 4 1⁄4” to 4 1⁄2”.
The dress is believed to have been made between the years 1975 and 1980. McFadden (b. 1938) launched her first collection in 1973 and patented her “Marii” pleating technique two years later. She began Mary McFadden Inc. in 1976, which focused on evening gowns using this Marii technique, as well as handcrafted elements including hand-painting, quilting, beading, and embroidery. Despite being a ready-to-wear line, much of the work was still done by hand. McFadden shut down her couture house in 2002 but denied rumors of financial difficulties; her partner claimed she wanted to focus on her new and more successful ready-to-wear line.
McFadden’s favored fabric was a polyester charmeuse she found while in Australia. Charmeuse, from the French word for “female charmer,” is a lightweight satin weave with the warps crossing over four or more weft threads, creating a fabric that is shiny on one side and dull on the other. She compared the drape to “liquid gold” or “ancient Chinese silk” (McFadden 2011). The fabric would be dyed in Japan in accordance with a particular collection and then sent to the United States to undergo the heat transfer pleating process. McFadden named the pleating fabric “Marii” pleating, a Japanese version of her name, Mary. The color for this dress is a mint or light green; from numerous examples this appears to have been a popular color McFadden used for her dresses. Sometimes called “Fortuny Pleating”, the technique ensured a permanent pleating that wouldn’t fall out with wear or travel. The Fortuny reference comes from designer Mariano Fortuny, who had his own couture house from 1906 until 1946. He employed a very similar style of pleating for which he became quite well-known.
Heavy beading and embroidery decorate the bodice of the dress, with chain stitching in various colors, small springs arranged into flower shapes, and beading in various shapes, including circles, half circles, tulips, and dashes. The decorations were made separately and sewn onto the dress as a large, completed piece; basting stitches are visible on the inside skirt along the bottom of the waistline decoration. McFadden studied sociology and anthropology at Columbia University for a time and was also well-traveled, and this shows in her designs. This particular dress, along with the more obvious Grecian look of the pleats, seems to have a Middle Eastern influence, with its bright colors and various shapes and symbols. McFadden reused many elements in her designs because she was unconcerned with trends, unlike most other designers. What was important to her was creating wearable art and showcasing the different cultures, both contemporary and ancient, that inspired her designs.
The dress is well constructed, but on close inspection it lacks some couture-level sewing. There is a hand picked zipper, but the basting stitches remain along the majority of its length. There appear to be basting stitches left in a few other places, such as along the top of the skirt where the waistline decoration is attached. There are also dotted line marks for two darts on either side of the inner lining however there is no evidence of darts being sewn there. The quality of the craftsmanship suggests that it may have been a prototype or that “couture” in the United States means something different than in Europe. Couture for this dress may mean “custom made.” The garment has been made smaller, also suggesting that Mrs. Annenberg owned and wore the garment for a number of years.
The original owner of the dress, Mrs. Janet Annenberg Hooker lived a lavish lifestyle, with homes in Manhattan, Palm Beach, and Newport; the Newport home was never lived in, as she purchased the home in 1992 and soon after her health began to decline. Married three times to wealthy men, and with a fortune of her own, she made a great deal of charitable donations, most notably to the Smithsonian. It is likely that Mrs. Hooker was in the spotlight throughout her life and would certainly want to look the part. A Mary McFadden gown was sure to make someone stand out, with its unique pleating, bright colors, and bright decorations. Mrs. Hooker seemed to never compromise on style; a photo of her in another Mary McFadden gown is dated to 1988, when Mrs. Hooker would have been eighty-four. This dress would have allowed Mrs. Hooker to indulge in the dramatic styles of the seventies and eighties, while the short sleeves and more modest neckline would have provided the coverage that older women tend to prefer.
The dress shows how inspiration can span decades and even centuries. Both Fortuny and McFadden were likely inspired by the pleats commonly found in ancient Greece, and despite the clear similarities between Fortuny’s pleats and McFadden’s, she has denied taking direct inspiration from his collections alone. It is more likely that they both looked back in time over other cultures and found inspiration in the same Greek statues.
There is also a timelessness in McFadden’s gowns, with the pleats spanning decades of her designs and her tendency to have a simple skirt paired with a more lavish bodice. These dresses will never go out of style, only simply become vintage. They are not so stuck in the trends and traditions of the time they were made that they cannot be easily translated to a new era; even if elements were to go out of style, the elegance of the gown would remain and it would be coveted, as it is now, as a beautiful vintage garment. Nothing truly remains out of style and that is proven by the pleats that spanned millennia.
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The Preservation Society of Newport County
Couture label sewn onto the belt