The Mystery of the Spotted Purple Dress
When I was a girl, one of my heroines was Nancy Drew. I remember eagerly turning the pages of the yellow hardcover books, following Nancy while she solved mysteries, unsnarled the most tangled puzzle, and tracked clues to the final chapter. As a curator for most of my adult career, solving mysteries is in part what I do every day. Every object in the Association's collection has a story, and sometimes it takes some digging to unearth it.
The Historical Association's historic clothing collection is vast and impressive. Much of it is carefully stored away, rarely on view. Recently, however, that has begun to change. With a generous grant from the Morris Foundation, we've been able to focus on this area of the collection - photographing selected garments and accessories, researching them, and then releasing them onto our E-Museum website, where they're accessible to visitors worldwide. Virtual access is the perfect solution: no harmful light rays to damage fragile fabrics, the ability to "display" more garments than our galleries could hold, and the fact that our online "exhibition" of our historic garments is permanent.
One such garment I recently selected for photography was a beautiful day dress from about 1913. Of vivid white-spotted purple silk georgette, with lace and black tassels, the dress's original owner was unknown. There was a single clue, however, to its maker: a woven waistband tape bearing the terse "Mrs. Arnold, Brooklyn."
A search of other museums' online collections yielded little. A breathtakingly beautiful black silk dress from about 1893 was in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, described briefly as being made by Mrs. Arnold, "a little-known Brooklyn dressmaker."
My curiosity was piqued, and I headed down the "rabbit hole" in search of answers. My first stop: the website Newspapers.com. With millions of pages of newspapers, this site has solved mysteries for me before. One brief advertisement for "Mrs. Arnold," seeking a lady's maid, popped up, but nothing substantial. I next turned to another favorite site, Ancestry.com.
Although I had no birth date, no first name, and nothing but the woman's last name and occupation, I made an educated guess. A woman able to design and make a dress of this sophistication was mature and had likely been in business for some time. I figured she'd be at least forty if not older, so I picked "1855" for a birth year, adding "dressmaker" to the "keyword" field. I hit "search" and kept my fingers crossed.
A 1910 Federal Census record yielded the first solid lead. A woman named Isabella Arnold, born in 1849, was listed as a dressmaker at 169 Clinton Street. Two adult daughters and a granddaughter lived with her. Further searching included a run of Brooklyn City Directories of the appropriate time period. With the first name "Isabella" in hand, I went back to Newspapers.com. More clues - including beautifully drawn illustrations of several dresses made by Isabel Arnold published in the pages of the newspaper "Brooklyn Life." I was pretty sure I had found the elusive Mrs. Arnold.
Moving back and forth between the two websites, I was able to fill in missing pieces. Arnold worked at 169 Clinton Street for many years, from the late 1880s to her death in 1916. Her name appeared variously as "Isabel," "Isabelle," and "Isabella." As is true in many research journeys, conflicting information also came to light. In one census record, Isabel listed her birthplace as Virginia, while a later newspaper article reported that she was "of foreign birth."
And then the unexpected bombshell turned up. Among the many newspaper articles was one headed "Suicide Excites High Society: Mrs. Edward De Witt Walsh Was Formerly Miss Wano Arnold of Clinton Street." Mrs. Arnold's oldest daughter Wano (or Wanda, as it sometimes appeared) committed suicide at the age of 27. Married twice, Wanda was apparently suffering from chronic pain as a result of surgeries and nerve damage. At a dinner party at her elegant home in Montclair, New Jersey, she excused herself with the words "I'll be all right in a few moments." Newspaper reporters speculated about causes, marriage problems, even drug use, but family, friends, and guests remained tight lipped.
As tragic as the events were, these articles supplied a good deal of valuable information about Isabel Arnold. She employed twenty-five people, catering to Brooklyn's and New York City's high society ladies. Arnold also had a second shop in the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga. This also provided context as to her success. At one time, the Grand Union Hotel was the largest in the world, patronized by wealthy and illustrious visitors. Isabel Arnold also visited Europe once and sometimes twice a year, most likely to purchase elegant fabrics and trims for her costume creations.
Arnold continued to run her business up to her death on February 21, 1916. In her brief obituary, her husband's name was given as "George J.," although in at least one other record her husband's name was listed as "John." No mention was made of her career, or of the family's tragedy 13 years before. She was cremated at the Fresh Pond Crematory and Columbarium in Middle Village, Queens County, New York.
Although there are still some unanswered questions (including the identity of Isabel's husband and her maiden name) my research trail uncovered fascinating details about Isabel Arnold. I'll never look at that pretty purple dress the same way again. If you'd like to see Mrs. Arnold's dress and read more about it, visit our E-Museum site at https://monmouthhistory.emuseum.com/objects. While you're there, take a look at some of the other fascinating stories connected to our historic costume collection.