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Research and Serendipity: Discovering a Family through the Prince Donation

Jessa J. Krick
Senior Research Assistant

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Thank you so much for the opportunity to speak to you this afternoon. Thank you, Jan, for your kind introduction and for the invitation to speak to colleagues and friends here at the symposium.

Today I'd like to speak to you about my discoveries related to a very special group of objects which are part of the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection. This research truly began with the methodical process of cataloging objects during the Brooklyn Costume Documentation Project. It was inspired directly by observations that were made about garments as they were examined and evaluated. During this process, one particular accession number group caught the attention of the team over and over again. The group had the accession number 67.110 and the donor was Mrs. Frederick H. Prince, Jr.

Frequently, when an object from this group moved through the cataloging process, it was identified as a highlight of the collection, part of the so-called Special 4,000, which you have heard about today. This group of garments proved to be a revelatory "collection within a collection" and one of the unexpected gems of the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection.

The large group donated by Mrs. Prince in 1967 is comprised of over four hundred objects. The list of designers represented included many big names: Paquin, Doucet, Lanvin, Vionnet and others. Among the garments: a Paquin from 1895 (pink evening dress); a Doucet from 1902 (evening dress); and a Jeanne Hallee from about 1903 (day dress). The gift also included pieces by virtually unknown designers. These, and even the objects without labels in the group, proved to be examples of the highest quality of fashionable goods available during a period spanning nearly a century.

The earliest pieces date from the mid-nineteenth century. Two of the nineteenth-century pieces are a wool dressing gown from 1885 and a bonnet dating to 1880. The collection includes luxurious accessories such as a leopard fur foot warmer from the first quarter of the twentieth century and these embroidered shoes from 1875. The latest pieces date to the 1930s, including two Lanvins both from 1937.

While the garments and accessories represented the impeccable taste—and significant wealth—of their owners, their history as a collection was far from clear at the start of the documentation project. Very little information about the donor or her family came to the museum with the gift. No background information existed in any part of the museum archives, other than a few short letters (brief notes, really) from Mrs. Prince in the donor files. No notes about who might have selected, purchased, or worn the garments accompanied them into the collection. Still, the quality of the objects called for additional research. In the end, the objects merited the time and effort, which is ongoing, spent to investigate them.

I began my research initially by looking into the Prince family and immediately discovered intriguing biographical details about one of America's elite families—elite, but far lesser known than others at their social level. I began to construct a time line of Prince family dates and milestones, returning to the objects as the cataloging process continued and more special garments were discovered.

I delved into Mrs. Frederick Prince, Jr.'s own biography and her family history, in an effort to discover if the garments might also have come from her, her mother, or other relatives on her side of the family. Mrs. Prince, Jr. was also Virginia Mitchell and Mrs. James Jackson Higginson at other points in her life. Since there are two Mrs. Princes in this story, I’ll refer to the donor as "Virginia" and her mother-in-law as "Mrs. Prince."

One new discovery is the only picture I have found so far of Virginia, in Vogue (December 1,1940), at a foxhunt with her fellow sportswoman, Mrs. Grafton Pyne.

One piece from a second, smaller gift Virginia made to the Brooklyn Museum in 1987 opened the door to the possibility that not all the garments came from a single source. The object was an engraved pocket watch given to Bessie Young, the beloved long-time nurse and nanny for Virginia's family, the Mitchells. While Virginia's family enjoyed a comfortable standard of living at Pennbrook, an estate in Far Hills, New Jersey, her father, Clarence Blair Mitchell, never inherited money from the fortune left by his great-grandfather, the railroad magnate John Insley Blair. While I still suspect some of the more modest pieces in Virginia's gift may have been worn by her mother, Lucy Mildred Matthews, the majority of the couture garments are more suited to the lifestyle of the Princes, in particular Virginia's in-laws, the senior Mr. and Mrs. Prince.

Virginia Mitchell Higginson married into the Prince family in 1935. She was the second wife of Frederick Henry Prince, Jr.

Frederick Jr. was the eldest son of Frederick Henry Prince, a shrewd financier who amassed a fortune through his own brokerage firm, then by diversifying with railroads and stockyards. Prince preserved his fortune during the stock market crash of 1929 and amassed even greater wealth in the 1930s, when he purchased Armour & Company and quickly built it into one of the largest companies in the United States at the time.

The Princes purchased Marble House in Newport, Rhode Island, from Alva Vanderbilt (then Mrs. Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont) in 1932 and the Prince family spent the summer there each year. Father and son are frequently mentioned in the Newport press as participants in yacht races, tennis, and polo matches. The family also maintained a home in Boston, an estate in Essex County outside Boston, a home in South Carolina, and, abroad, homes in Biarritz and in Pau, France. There is even some evidence of the Prince men in the gift. This ascot tie from a French maker is embroidered with Frederick Sr.'s monogram.

With these clues about the Princes' wealth, my attention turned to Mrs. Prince, the mother-in-law of Virginia and the most likely candidate for the ownership of the couture garments in the gift. For some pieces the connections were obvious: several petticoats and drawers bear the married monogram of Mrs. Prince.

Abigail Kinsley Norman married Frederick Prince in 1884. Abigail's family resided in Boston, Newport, and New York, and later also owned Paradise Farm in Rhode Island. By 1894, ten years after her marriage, Abigail was identified as a social leader in New York. This petticoat and others bear her embroidered monogram, "AP" for Abigail Prince.

A cream and light-blue evening dress retains the label of a little-known designer Raoul LaFontan and a Pau address. The gown easily could have been purchased during a trip to the Prince family home there. Although the designer's name is not well known, the dress dates to 1900–03. Other examples of Mrs. Prince’s clothing attest to her elegance and good taste.

A beaded gown is a remarkable piece. Dating to 1909–11, it has no label in it, but the beadwork. Other items in the collection quietly represent the grief Mrs. Prince experienced in her lifetime. Her mother died in 1915, followed by her son the following year, 1916. Norman Prince was the younger of her two sons. He sustained fatal injuries while flying a mission with the Lafayette Escadrille, the American volunteer flying corps attached to the French forces in the early part of the First World War. These mourning hats would have been highly fashionable and appropriate mourning attire for both sad occasions.

The Prince family fortune ensured that Mrs. Prince's wardrobe included a great deal of couture. Perhaps Virginia's did too after she married into the Prince fortune.

A gown by Suzanne Talbot from about 1925 is a highlight of the High Style show in Brooklyn. It speaks to a woman who was aware of transformation of styles in the 1920s. Mrs. Prince would have been in her sixties during the 1920s, but the labels in the garments indicate she was still a couture client in that decade.

One such garment resulted in a favorite story from the cataloging project. At some point long before cataloging began, the two pieces of this dress became separated and were stored apart from one another at the Brooklyn Museum. The sheer outer dress, with its dramatic hemline and delicate drawnwork at the shoulder seams and sleeve ends was cataloged with the 1920s garments and identified as incomplete. Jan, the other Research Assistants, and I, however, could not ignore the quality of the garment and kept it in mind as we examined slips and underdresses later in the project. We all enjoyed a eureka moment when overdress and underdress were reunited. Both pieces are of similar quality, aligned perfectly when placed on a dress form and matched the brief original accession description. The label in the underdress? That of Lucien Lelong, a designer known for his modern sensibility. While the dress is in keeping with the prevailing styles of the 1920s, the cut and severity also suggests an artistic sensibility for the woman who selected and wore it. She would have been someone who appreciated its austerity, angularity, and inventive design.

While the precise reasons why Virginia chose the Brooklyn Museum as a home for her collection of family garments have been lost, the gift greatly enhanced the holdings of the costume collection at the Brooklyn Museum. The gift brought a large number of couture pieces in excellent condition into the department. Even among world-class collections, the list of donors for such a large group of singular examples of French couture and custom American garments is a short one.

You all will have seen examples from the Prince gift in the High Style exhibition today, although you may not have known about the Prince family until this afternoon. As you have an opportunity to explore the American Woman show at the Met tomorrow, I encourage you to look closely at the exhibition labels and note how frequently Prince garments appear in the select group on view there.

As a result of the Costume Documentation Project, the gift of Mrs. Frederick H. Prince, Jr. and those of so many others are now reaching a new audience in these and future exhibitions. Undoubtedly, they will be a part of future installations and continue to inspire research and new discovery in years to come.

Thank you.

Author's note: For complete information and citations, see my essay "Three Women of Fashion" in the Costume Documentation Project archive at the Brooklyn Museum.

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