Things That Matter: Rare French couture in La Crosse

A late 19th century French couture gown in the La Crosse County History Society’s collection.

La Crosse County Historical Society

Within the La Crosse County Historical Society’s costume and textile collection is a late 19th century French couture gown. I discovered it during an internship in the fall of 2015.

The two-piece garment, which is missing its waistband and underskirt, features exquisitely hand-embroidered green silk taffeta in a style highly reminiscent of the court gowns of 18th century France. The couture label, stitched into the dress’s bodice, reads: Jeanne Hallée; 3, Rue de la Ville-l’Évêque, Paris.

The little-known but widely successful design house of Jeanne Hallée was popular among wealthy Americans from the 1880s through the 1920s. Known mostly for its fine French lingerie, Jeanne Hallée was one of the places for a wealthy and aristocratic woman to go for her wedding trousseau. However, as of yet, there has been almost nothing published about Jeanne Hallée, and almost all that is left of the design house are the few surviving garments held in museums worldwide.

The largest collection of Jeanne Hallée garments is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, while the rest are scattered in various European and American collections, and only one known garment remains in France at the Palais Galliera, the Museum of Fashion in Paris.

So how did this rare garment end up at the La Crosse County Historical Society? The donation record of the gown listed only the donor’s name, Grace Wurtz. I discovered she was from La Crosse but eventually moved to California. I also was able to locate and contact Wurtz, now 96, and her daughter and hear the complete history of the dress and its donation.

The gown was made for Sara Alice Spang, the daughter of a wealthy steel and banking family in Pittsburgh. The family had strong European connections, spending a great deal of time abroad. Sara eventually met and married a British man, Alfred Frederick Joseph Sang, whom she met in an alphabetized French conversation class: Mr. Sang and Miss Spang were seated next to each other. The two married in London in February 1899.

The dress itself can be dated to within a year of their marriage, and was most likely part of her wedding trousseau. The couple lived alternately in France and Pennsylvania, and they had three children before Alfred died in service in France during World War I. The dress was passed down from Sara to her daughter Elizabeth Sang and then to her daughter-in-law, Grace Sang, later Grace Wurtz, who grew up in La Crosse.

Grace, recognizing the significance of the dress, donated it in 1988 to the La Crosse County Historical Society, which was growing its textile collection at the time.

Discovered again in the collection after more than 20 years, the gown is now serving a new purpose. I chose to research the mystery of the forgotten designer Jeanne Hallée for my history research seminar at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Since graduation, I’m moving forward with research to publish the first chronological account of the design house’s history and its contribution to the haute couture industry.


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