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The Elizabeth Balfour Clark Gowns

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The Fashion and Textiles collection of the Ulster Museum aims to tell the story of fashionable dress from the earliest period possible, and right up to today. The collection has been rebuilt almost from scratch after a firebomb in 1976 destroyed the museum’s original costume collection. This rebuilding has been achieved through a combination of careful acquisition and generous donations from the public.

In 2019 we received two of the most remarkable donations that have ever been gifted to the collection: two gowns that both once belonged to the Scottish-American textile heiress, Elizabeth Balfour Clark (1870-1926).

The earlier of the two dresses is a silk satin wedding dress and train that Elizabeth wore for her wedding in New York in 1896. The second is a court presentation dress and train that she also wore at the last Viceregal event held in Dublin Castle in 1911. These beautiful gowns reflect not only important events in Elizabeth’s life, but also tell us about changes in women’s fashion during this period, and relate to historic events unfolding in Ireland at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Image: BELUM.T2019.20.1 Elizabeth Balfour Clark’s wedding dress, 1896 and BELUM.T2019.13.1 Elizabeth Balfour Clark’s court presentation dress and train, 1911
BELUM.T2019.20.1 Elizabeth Balfour Clark’s wedding dress, 1896 and BELUM.T2019.13.1 Elizabeth Balfour Clark’s court presentation dress and train, 1911

Who was Elizabeth Balfour Clark?

Image: Elizabeth Balfour Clark on her wedding day, 1896
Elizabeth Balfour Clark on her wedding day, 1896

Elizabeth Balfour Clark was born in 1870 in Newark, New Jersey into the Clark family of thread manufacturers. Of Scottish descent, her father William Clark owned enormous mills in both Paisley, Scotland and in Newark, New Jersey. These were known as the ‘Anchor’ mills because of the family crest. The company continues to run today as Coats Group plc. and is the world’s largest manufacturer and distributor of sewing thread and supplies.

Image: The Clark ‘Anchor’ mills were identified by the family emblem. Credit Caroline Laidlaw
The Clark ‘Anchor’ mills were identified by the family emblem. Credit Caroline Laidlaw
Image: The Clark ‘Anchor’ mills were identified by the family emblem. Credit Caroline Laidlaw
The Clark ‘Anchor’ mills were identified by the family emblem. Credit Caroline Laidlaw
Image: A remaining part of the Clarks mill still stands in Paisley, Scotland today. Image credit: Caroline Laidlaw
A remaining part of the Clarks mill still stands in Paisley, Scotland today. Image credit: Caroline Laidlaw

In 1896 Elizabeth married Thomas Kennedy Laidlaw in New York. Although Laidlaw was born in Glasgow and they married in America, the couple settled in Ireland, and 1919 Laidlaw became High Sheriff of County Dublin. He was later made Privy Council in 1922 and was the last Irish PC to ever be appointed.

Whilst living in Dublin, Elizabeth was very involved in the social life of Dublin Castle, mixing with the Vicereine Lady Aberdeen and her husband, Lord Aberdeen, the Viceroy. It was in Dublin Castle that she would one day be presented to Queen Mary wearing the court ensemble that will also be discussed here.

Elizabeth Balfour Clark’s Wedding Dress

Image: Elizabeth Balfour Clark on wedding day, April 15th 1896
Elizabeth Balfour Clark on wedding day, April 15th 1896

Elizabeth Balfour Clark was married to Thomas Kennedy Laidlaw in the North Reformed Church, Newark, New Jersey in April 1896. She can be seen in this wedding photo wearing her dress the day she got married. She is wearing it here with a veil, a lace trimming on the bodice, and orange blossoms. The dress has a tiny 19-inch waist that would have been further emphasised by the large sleeves fashionable in the 1890s.

The silk satin train of the same beautiful silk material as the dress, measures at about three meters long and is trimmed on the underside with white chiffon.

Image: BELUM.T2019.20.1 Elizabeth Balfour Clark’s wedding dress with train, 1896
BELUM.T2019.20.1 Elizabeth Balfour Clark’s wedding dress with train, 1896
Image: BELUM.T2019.20.1 detail of Elizabeth Balfour Clark’s wedding dress train, 1896
BELUM.T2019.20.1 detail of Elizabeth Balfour Clark’s wedding dress train, 1896

Even though the fashion in the 1890s was for highly embellished bodices with lots of trimmings, the main decorative element of this dress is the deeply folded pleats around the waistline. The effect is to simply allow the quality of the fabric to speak for itself. 

Image: BELUM.T2019.20.1 Detail of bodice of Elizabeth Balfour Clark’s wedding dress, 1896
BELUM.T2019.20.1 Detail of bodice of Elizabeth Balfour Clark’s wedding dress, 1896

The dress was worn with a pair of silk shoes made by Francis O’Neill of 1170-1172 Broadway, New York which were also donated to the Ulster Museum. Shoes by O’Neill are also found in the Met museum’s costume institute in New York, suggesting that the dress may also have been made in New York.

Image: BELUM.T2019.20.3 Pair of silk shoes by Francis O’Neil, New York, 1896
BELUM.T2019.20.3 Pair of silk shoes by Francis O’Neil, New York, 1896

However, we cannot be entirely sure who originally made this dress, as there is no original maker’s mark. The inside of the bodice does contain a non-contemporary label for ‘Marjorie Boland’ of 86 Grafton Street Dublin, and a piece of blue ribbon. In the 1980s, one of Elizabeth’s descendants re-wore this dress for her own wedding, and it was probably Boland who altered the dress and added the ‘something blue’ when it was reworn.

Coincidentally, the large sleeves and wide shoulderline that was in style when the dress was first made came back into fashion in the 1980s, and despite being almost a century old at that point, would have been entirely in tune with current trends.

Image: Non-contemporary label and “something blue” found inside bodice of wedding dress
Non-contemporary label and “something blue” found inside bodice of wedding dress

Elizabeth’s wedding in 1896 was a very grand affair. A New York paper reported that “no wedding which has taken place in Newark in several years has evoked more interest” and that “the church was lavishly decorated with flowers and plants” including Easter lilies, scotch heather, and palms.[1] The heather, both in the church decorations and in her bouquet, were a reference to her Scottish heritage.

The bride was described as being “clad in ivory-white satin with a net veil and a wreath of orange blossoms.” [2] The newspapers also reported that there were over 1000 guests in attendance on the day[3], and that 170 persons were invited to a wedding breakfast after the ceremony at the home of the bride’s parents on Mount Prospect Avenue.[4]

The Court Presentation Ensemble

Image: BELUM.T2019.13.1, Court presentation dress and train, Madame Duboc, London, 1911
BELUM.T2019.13.1, Court presentation dress and train, Madame Duboc, London, 1911

This incredible ensemble was worn by Elizabeth twenty years after her wedding in 1911 when she was presented to Queen Mary. It consists of a Brussels lace and Irish crochet dress with an embroidered and beaded train attaching at the shoulders.

This was worn for a court presentation ceremony at Dublin Castle arranged when the newly coronated King George the V and Queen Mary visited Ireland in July 1911. This would turn out to be the last royal visit to the country for exactly 100 years.

The proceedings involved the male invitees being presented to King George in the Throne Room of the Castle for an event called a levée, and the ladies being presented to Queen Mary in the State Drawing Room. Elizabeth was amongst the ladies invited to be presented, whilst her husband TK Laidlaw attended the levée.

Image: Elizabeth Balfour Laidlaw née Clark and Thomas Kennedy Laidlaw both in court dress, photographed by Lafayette Dublin, 1911
Elizabeth Balfour Laidlaw née Clark and Thomas Kennedy Laidlaw both in court dress, photographed by Lafayette Dublin, 1911

Madame Leonie Duboc

The dress has a maker’s mark reading “Madame Duboc 8 Clifford Street New Bond Street W By Special Appointment to HM Queen Alexandra”.

Image: Detail of Madame Duboc label inside bodice of court dress
Detail of Madame Duboc label inside bodice of court dress

Few details survive about the maker of the dress, Madame Duboc. She first appears in the London directories in 1895 as a court dressmaker, and her last entry was in 1907,[5] though as this dress dates from 1911, she was clearly active beyond that point.

It is interesting that Elizabeth chose this particular maker for her presentation in Dublin Castle as there is a link between Duboc and the first court presentation ceremony held in 1902 by Queen Alexandra. In 1902 Queen Alexandra re-introduced the concept of formalised ceremonies known as “courts” into the Royal social calendar, taking the place of the ‘Drawing Room’ functions habitual during Queen Victoria’s 63-year reign.

An article published in the Belfast Newsletter on March 15th 1902 following the first of this new “series of brilliant functions” goes to great lengths to describe the fashions worn by attendees at the event, especially by Queen Alexandra. It was reported that her dressmaker of choice for this affair was “Madame Leonie Duboc of 8 Clifford Street London” – the same Duboc whom Elizabeth chose for her own court presentation event in Dublin nine years later. ‘

It seems possible that when choosing a dressmaker for her own presentation at court, Elizabeth chose a maker well associated with royalty and style. Duboc’s other royal clientele included Queen Maud of Norway who had a going-away dress made by Duboc in 1896, now in the National Museum of Art, Oslo.

Court dress

Image: Elizabeth Balfour Laidlaw née Clark on day of court presentation, 1911. Photo by Lafayette, Dublin
Elizabeth Balfour Laidlaw née Clark on day of court presentation, 1911. Photo by Lafayette, Dublin

The term used for the ensembles worn by those attending the formal assemblies held by the king or queen was “court dress”. The outfits worn by men and women at these events were highly regulated and had to meet the standards laid out by the Lord Chamberlain’s office. There is a photograph taken by Lafayette in Dublin on the day Elizabeth was presented to Queen Mary where we are able to see how her outfit and accessories meet all of the requirements necessary for the occasion.

This included:

“…[a] low bodice, short sleeves, and train to dress not less than three yards in length from the shoulders. Whether the train is cut round or square is a matter of inclination or fashion. The width at the end should be 54 inches.”

Regulations also stated that “it is also the fashion for married ladies to wear white on their presentation…” making the choice of white lace and crochet worn by Elizabeth perfect for the occasion.

Other regulations included that can also be observed in this image are:

  • White gloves (grey or black would only be admissible if one was in mourning)
  • Plumes – for married ladies Court plumes consisted of three white feathers
  • A bouquet. Though not in the dress regulations issued by the Lord Chamberlain they were invariably carried by both married and unmarried ladies.[6]

Crochet and Lace

Image: BELUM.T2019.13 Elizabeth Balfour Clark’s Brussels lace and Irish crochet court dress without train, Madame Duboc, London, 1911
BELUM.T2019.13 Elizabeth Balfour Clark’s Brussels lace and Irish crochet court dress without train, Madame Duboc, London, 1911
Image: BELUM.T2019.13 Elizabeth Balfour Clark’s Brussels lace and Irish crochet court dress without train, Madame Duboc, London, 1911
BELUM.T2019.13 Elizabeth Balfour Clark’s Brussels lace and Irish crochet court dress without train, Madame Duboc, London, 1911
Image: BELUM.T2019.13 Elizabeth Balfour Clark’s Brussels lace and Irish crochet court dress without train, Madame Duboc, London, 1911
BELUM.T2019.13 Elizabeth Balfour Clark’s Brussels lace and Irish crochet court dress without train, Madame Duboc, London, 1911

In addition to being the correct colour for the event, Elizabeth’s choice of white Irish crochet and Brussels lace for her court dress was very appropriate number of other ways as well.  Brussels lace was known to be a favourite of Queen Alexandra. Along with choosing Duboc as her dressmaker, the lace may also have been a nod to her influence.

Image: BELUM.T2019.13 Detail of Brussels lace and Irish crochet on Elizabeth Balfour Clark’s court dress
BELUM.T2019.13 Detail of Brussels lace and Irish crochet on Elizabeth Balfour Clark’s court dress

As a fabric Brussels lace is renowned for its delicacy and beauty, as well as its cost. In ‘A History of Lace,’ Mrs Paliser describes the painstaking process of its production:

“The finest quality is spun in dark underground rooms, as contact with the dry air causes the thread to break, so fine is it as almost to escape the sight…A background of dark paper is placed to throw out the thread, and the room is so arranged as to admit one single ray of light upon the work…It is the fineness of the thread which renders the real Brussels thread so costly.”[7]

The majority of the dress is formed of Irish crochet, another significant choice. The Vicereine Lady Aberdeen, whom Elizabeth was friends with, would have played an important role in organising the court presentation at Dublin Castle during the royal visit. She was very well known for promoting Irish textiles and crafts, especially Irish lace and crochet. In 1907 she held her famous ‘lace ball’ at the Castle where all invitees were instructed to wear “Irish lace or crochet or Irish embroidery on their toilettes[8]. The run up to that event increased sales and interest in Irish lace with big department stores advertising the newest designs to meet demand.[9]

The remarkable cream silk train attaches at the shoulders of the dress and may also have been made by Madame Duboc. It measures 3.5 metres long and over 2 metres wide. A delicate layer of net overlays the train, which is decorated with elaborate beading and floral motifs. The swirling patterns of the bead work are reminiscent of the Art Nouveau movement which gloried in convoluted patterns inspired by the natural world. Astonishingly, the entire ensemble would have been handmade.

Image: Detail of silver rose on train
Detail of silver rose on train
Image: Detail of beading and embroidery on train
Detail of beading and embroidery on train

The colour scheme is also interesting given the time it was worn. In 1911 the suffragettes would have been campaigning for women to have the vote, and it was well known that they had adopted green, white and violet as their political colours. The purple of the iris flowers in this train may also symbolise royalty, appropriately for the occasion.

Image: Detail of iris flower on train
Detail of iris flower on train

Conclusion

Together, these wonderful pieces hold multiple meanings as part of the Ulster Museum’s collection.

Having both once belonged to a family member of the Clark thread manufacturing company, they help to represent an important part of the history of textiles and their production.

As individual garments, their exquisite quality and design mark the wedding dress and court dress as superb examples of the fashions of their respective eras.

Finally, looking back on the turbulent decades following the last Viceregal event in Ireland in 1911, the beautiful court dress and train worn by Elizabeth Balfour Clark for the occasion represents both fashion, and Irish political history.

 

[1] ‘Laidlaw-Clark’, The Sun New York, April 16 1896, p. 3

[2] ‘Laidlaw-Clark’, The Daily Morning Journal and Courier, April 16 1896, p 3

[3] ibid

[4] ‘Laidlaw-Clark’, The Sun New York, April 16 1896, p. 3

[5] Kjellberg & North, Style and Splendour: The Wardrobe of Queen Maud of Norway, (London, V&A Publications, 2005), p.97

[6] Lady Colin Campbell, Manners and Rules of Good Society, (London, 1911)

[7] Mrs Palliser,  A History of Lace, (London, 1902) pp. 118-119

[8] Helland, Janice, “Caprices of Fashion': Handmade Lace in Ireland 1883–1907”, Textile History 39.2 (2008) pp. 214-215

[9] Dowling, Noeleen, ‘Lace at the end of Union,’ The Irish Times, 24 February 2007 <https://www.irishtimes.com/news/lace-at-the-end-of-union-1.1197051. [accessed 4 March 2021]