From the Collection March 2017

Black satin and ermine evening gown belonging to Rose Grainger, with matching sash and stole, M. Levinsky & Co., Copenhagen.

Photography by Lee McRae

This wonderful dress was photographed just last week, in the Grainger Museum Collection Store. One of hundreds of stunning articles of fashion in the collection belonging to Rose Grainger, Percy’s mother, this dress, with matching sash, stole and muff (not photographed) must be one of the most striking and unusual. Made of black satin, with an overskirt of lace, the dress has attached to it dozens of ermine tails, stitched to the lace at regular intervals from a single point on each tail. The effect when Rose was moving in the gown must have been mesmerising. Each ermine tail has a natural curve which would have caused it to rotate almost independently of the movement of the wearer – almost as if the tails were alive… As Rose circulated through the glamorous crowd of a London society “at-home” the effect would have been even more startling. The stole worn around her neck is made of two complete ermine, joined near their heads. As Rose turned, viewers would have come face-to-face with the two animals, resting at the back of Rose’s neck, with their inset beady eyes and whiskers still intact.

In the course of photography, we uncovered the label of ‘M. Levinsky & Co.’ of Copenhagen attached to the inside of the fur stole. Levinsky was established in 1869, as a luxury furrier, and is still a leading brand, exhibiting fashion furs world-wide. Rose Grainger travelled to Denmark with Percy on his concert tour in 1910, which included Percy’s introduction to the Royal Danish Court, and it is possible that the outfit may have been purchased directly from Levinsky at this time. Fur has long held high status as a sign of lineage, rank and class, and traditionally ermine, which features so prominently in Rose’s outfit, was linked with Western European courts, representing Royal ‘moral purity’. Fur markets made a huge expansion in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, reaching their peaks in the 1920s and 1930s, with ermine as one of the most desirable and expensive of fashion furs.

In the period that Rose purchased her outfit in Denmark, her fellow Australian women were also feeling the need for fur. The ladies fashion section ‘Wives and Daughters’ in the Sydney newspaper The Sun refers to ‘The craze for Ermine’ in fashionable Sydney circles in 1911.  Struggling for opportunity to wear full fur coats in the Australian climate, Australian fashionistas sensibly opted for more decorative uses of fur. In 1913, the writer of “Fashion and the Home” for the Sydney Mail proclaimed that “Fur trimming is amongst the novelties of the moment. Fur is seen on everything, from our hats to our shoes. The belt, too, has been revived… Very often [stole ends] are completed with fur, tail-less ermine being prime favourite.”

Ermine maintains its rare and exclusive position in fashion today. While the incredible garment in the Grainger Collection seems to be very unusual in its particular use of the ermine tails attached so provocatively to the lace, take a look at this gown by Valentino from their Autumn 2013 Collection: Featuring white ‘ermine’ mink embroidery on a contemporary lace jacket, this outfit has echoes of Rose’s creation. Would she have liked it, I wonder?

Heather Gaunt, Curator, Exhibitions and Collections,Grainger Museum