The Spun-Glass Dress That Made a Splash at the World’s Fair


Dress and parasol (1893), Libbey Glass Company, spun glass threads, Toledo Museum of Art (all images courtesy the museum)

Forget the glass slipper fantasy — this glass-spun dress is the real deal! At the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA), one of only two dresses designed by the Libbey Glass Company is now on view as part of the exhibition State of the Art: Revealing Works from the Conservation Vault. The shimmering, delicate garment and its accompanying parasol were constructed by French seamstress Madame Victorine Carmody in New York City during the early 1890s for well-known stage actress and comedian Georgia Cayvan.

The process of extracting the glass fibers involved pulling thin strands of molten glass off the rod and winding it around a large turning wheel. According to a historical document provided by the TMA, it took just over 37 hours to pull “1,900 miles of continuous [glass] filament.”

A souvenir card from the World’s Fair in 1893 shows Infanta Eulalia in the dress.

Though Cayvan had worn the dress to perform on stage before, it was naturally too fragile for practical use, earning a prized display spot at the Libbey Glass Company’s extravagant exhibition space in the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Edward Drummond Libbey, who inherited the company from his father, had commissioned an elaborate, palace-like pavilion for the fair space that raised the eyebrows of his fellow board members, who were conscious of the company’s fragile finances since an inexpensive glass variant had begun to rise in popularity.

However, the pavilion was a total success, drawing about two million visitors in the six-month duration of the World’s Fair.

One particularly distinguished visitor, Infanta (Princess) Eulalia of Spain, was immediately captivated by the intricacy of the glass dress on display, and Libbey had one made especially for her. The princess was so pleased with her dress that she even permitted Libbey to use the Spanish coat of arms in the company’s advertising as a seal of approval.

Unfortunately, the bodice of Infanta Eulalia’s dress succumbed to natural degradation and micro-breakages over time. TMA’s senior director of collections and curatorial affairs, Andrea Gardner, told Hyperallergic that Cayvan’s original commission is the only complete Libbey glass-fiber dress (and parasol!) in existence right now, “making it a unique marvel that bridges fashion and glass during the late 19th century.”

In 1893, the New York Times anticipated that glass dresses would be the latest luxury fad that year, but was ultimately proven wrong as the frocks were neither comfortable nor structurally sound.

“Weaving glass thread at the Chicago World’s Fair” (1893), Libbey Glass Company, Toledo Museum of Art Archives

A spokesperson for the museum confirmed that Libbey’s wife, Florence Scott Libbey, came into possession of Cayvan’s dress and parasol and eventually donated them to the TMA collection in 1925. The museum notes that the dress is in a fragile state as the broken glass filaments cut into the silk threads, creating quite the conundrum for the conservation specialists looking after it.

TMA is currently seeking donations for enhanced conservation efforts for the dress, and for other fragile artworks showcased in the current exhibition, through its Adopt an Artwork” program.

“Through crowd-funding the adoption, our hope is that any visitor can assist with the conservation research and treatment of this object that is so closely tied to our local history,” Gardner concluded.

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