This is part 5 of our Gilded Age series. Check out the first four parts under 'The Gilded Age' tab.
Mrs. Osborn Company
Josefa Nielson Osborn was a Gilded Age socialite and one of the most fashion women in Manhattan society of the 1880s and 90s.
The financial panic that began in 1893 financially ruined her husband, which prompted her to make her own income.
She became a fashion columnist and regularly wrote for The Delineator magazine. Within a year, she was designing theatrical costumes. She told a reporter that “Clothes were always my passion. I do not mean clothes merely as clothes, but artistic clothes made to suit the individual wearer. I used to advise my friends about their gowns. When a time came…when I found myself obliged to earn money, I began to advise professionally. I designed the gowns worn by Miss Julie Opp in ‘The Tree of Knowledge (1897).’ That achievement was my start.”
“She intends to take commissions to design all the costumes for the productions of modern plays, believing that she will be able to effect artistic and ‘swell’ results in studying individual and ensemble requirements,” said The New York Dramatic Mirror. “If Mrs. Osborn succeeds in supplanting the crude, inharmonious and flashy costumes now common on the stage of certain of our theatres whose managers show their blissful ignorance of good form, she will be doing good missionary work.”
She was soon designing for her friends too and opened her dressmaking company- the Mrs. Osborn Company. As Fifth Avenue millionaires were moving northwards, she remodelled a vacant mansion directly across from the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel into her office.
The business was an instant success and she dressed the foremost actresses of the day, including Ethel Barrymore and top socialites like Caroline Astor and Alva Belmont. Her gowns were regarded as the most beautiful made by any American designer. The success of the business is reflected in its employee salaries. A fitter named Mr. John E. Sullivan was making over $1,000 a week in today’s dollars.
She had decided by 1904 that she no longer needed a husband and divorced Robert Osborn.
The building she occupied was razed to make way for the B. Altman department store and she was forced to relocate.
Josefa herself didn’t go out much anymore and preferred to make money instead.
On March 31, 1908 The Evening World published a list of the gowns and accessories Mrs. Howard Gould purchased from the shop in a period of nine months. Her husband was annoyed at the bill, totaling $20,750.
She passed away from appendicitis later that year.
Catherine Donovan was born in Ireland in 1826. She emigrated to the United States when she was a child. She later studied fashion design in Paris and established a dressmaking business in New York. She sold imported gowns by Worth and Pingat. Her own designs were heavily influenced by French designers. She became favoured by New York’s upper-class ‘400’ elites.
“Her employees' baggage was seized at U.S. customs on suspicion of smuggling. It was common practice for seized goods to be auctioned publicly, and in 1893 over five hundred people attended an auction of Worth, Pingat, and other gowns seized from Donovan”. - from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Her obituary stated that “The Goelets, Astor’s and Vanderbilt’s were patrons of Mrs. Donovan. The wedding gown worn by the Duchess of Marlborough (Consuelo Vanderbilt) was made under her supervision.”
By 1900, her premises was located on Madison Avenue in a brownstone building where she also lived.
She died in 1906, leaving no children.
A number of examples of her work are exhibited at the Met.
Alva Vanderbilt wrote of her mother’s preference for French dress and mentioned that her (originally southern) family were customers of Madame Olympe of New Orleans.
Olympe Boisse was a French national who immigrated to the U.S in the 1840s. She took over a millinery establishment in 1853 called A.Mace. She was about 30 years old at the time. After she was married in 1854, she became known as Madame Olympe.
Though she began her business in the period before the Gilded Age, Olympe was still dressing customers into the 1870s and 80s.
Her business soon expanded beyond millinery to become the most fashionable shop in the city, always with a rush of customers, offering gowns, bonnets and wraps of the highest quality. Because she had a business partner to take care of things at home, she was able to travel each summer to Paris to collect dresses, fabrics and accessories in the latest fashions as well as skilled dressmakers. She sold her goods at very large profits and is one of the first American dressmakers to apply her own label to the clothing she sold. It is unclear if Madame Olympe created garments by her own hand. What is clear is that she was an astute businesswoman and self promotor.
A gown bought for $100 by Lovel Ledoux, Sr., was invoiced for $200: the basic dress cost was quoted to this father unfamiliar with shopping for his daughter, but the ribbon and lace trimmings—and “special” delivery charges—doubled its price. An adept marketing technique.
Her invoices had headers describing her business as “Millinery and fancy dry goods store” and “Laces, muslins and ball dresses”.
The Civil War wreaked havoc on her business as blockades took hold. In 1861 and in 1864, the government substantially increased taxes on imported silk goods to an average of 60%.
After the war, she moved premises a number of times. She kept her doors open, shipping goods from New York rather than Paris now, but business was not what it had been and she eventually closed shop in 1886.
Unfortunately, there are few surviving examples of her work. There is one black taffeta 1860s dress at the FIDM and an 1860s pink silk dress at the Met (with 2 different bodices).
What happened to Madame Olympe after she closed her business is unfortuneatley unknown.