A pair of renaissance-inspired dresses once owned by Irene Hammond, the wife of Gloucester inventor John Hays Hammond Jr., sat folded in a closet, artifacts of everyday life, at the Hammond Castle Museum for decades.

But the dresses are anything but ordinary, museum officials found, after a sharped-eyed visitor recognized the iconic fabric and they discovered documentation of the gowns' origins.

The dresses are the work of Spanish designer Mariano Fortuny, and valued at about $10,000 each. To showcase the gowns, the museum has created a special exhibit, which opens with a reception this Friday, Sept. 6, from 7 to 9:30 p.m. at the museum. Head Archivist Alana Rooke will give a presentation on the discovery and restoration of the gowns. Tickets are on sale for $15 on the museum’s website.

“These gowns would have been two of the most prized dresses Irene would have worn to dinner parties in the castle with the Astors or Rockefellers, or when she was at dinner parties in New York with her husband,” said Scott Cordiner, curator and creative director at Hammond Castle.

The exhibit will have a limited run, ending Sept. 27.

Fortuny ran an Italian couture house from 1906 to 1946. "Fortuny was most famous for his pleating, which has never been reproduced since his death in 1949," Cordiner said, creating gowns inspired by the classical Grecian silhouette and Renaissance fashions.

Like Hammond, Fortuny was an inventor. He had about 22 patents for his garment printing processes and his signature design, the Delphos, which was typically a loose fitted column dress of hand-crafted fine pleats inspired by the Greek chiton.

Both the Victoria Albert Museum in London and The Met in New York City have Fortuny’s work in their collections.

The two Fortuny dresses at Hammond Castle date to the 1920s and ‘30s, and are designed in his “Eleanora” style. Cordiner said that at the time they were made, the dresses were a modern take on Renaissance fashion.

“The dresses are something that truly transcend any one period,” Cordiner said.

The first gown, a black velvet tabard with a gold print Persian design running down its front, has silk pleated sleeves and Murano glass bead closures on its side panels. While there are minor stains and signs of wear on the dress, it is still in good shape.

The second gown is a green velvet tabard with a 15th-century gold pomegranate print and gold silk pleated sleeves. "It appears this pattern with this color is extremely rare as the Fortuny Palazzo in Venice does not have a record of this color with this pattern," Cordiner said. It is also adorned with Murano glass beading on its sides and has minor wear, but it will require more restoration than the first dress due to its silk interior lining being shattered.

Cordiner said restoration efforts will likely happen over the winter. The museum does not have an estimate yet of how much it will cost.

While they are on display this fall, the black gown will be on a dress form from the early 1900s and the green dress will be carefully laid in an archival box on top of a display form Cordiner made specially for it. They will continue to be displayed for a few weeks each year.

“The gowns had been on display in the museum in the 1980s and in the 1960s for short periods of time, but they wouldn't have been shown with the gravitas they deserve,” Cordiner said.

More information on Fortuny, along with vintage dress books and patterns, will be included in the exhibit.

“(These gowns) hold so much cultural significance and are refreshingly relevant to Hammond Castle Museum,” Rooke said, in a prepared statement. “Fortuny was an inventor just like John Hays Hammond Jr., plus these gowns reflect Irene Hammond’s love of the Renaissance era.

“You can just imagine the splendor of wearing one of these gowns while walking through (Hammond Castle’s) Great Hall,” Rooke said.

Tickets for the opening night reception of Fortuny’s exhibit may be purchased by visiting www.hammondcastle.org/special-events/.

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