Another Year, Another Dress: A Stunning New Shogren Design on Display in “Experience Oregon”

March 31, 2020

By Helen Fedchak

Because historic costumes are delicate and long-term display can cause damage, museum collections staff rotate out the Shogren dress on display in “Experience Oregon” approximately once a year. The exhibit’s one-year anniversary on February 14, 2020, let us know that it was time for a new dress! Emma Ruggles Corbett wore this purple velvet day dress. She was married to Henry Winslow Corbett and was a prominent Portlander during the early twentieth century.

In October 2019, Dear Oregon highlighted a gorgeous, sparkly dress on display in the Oregon Historical Society’s (OHS) permanent exhibit, Experience Oregon. The exhibit features a display case dedicated to M & A Shogren designs, a Portland fashion house run by dressmakers May and Ann Shogren during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Shogren sisters made couture clothing for Portlanders and were sought out by customers across the United States for their stunning work. OHS has several Shogren dresses in its collection, and every year the museum collections staff changes the dress on display to prevent stress on the garments from long-term display as well as to allow visitors to see a range of their dresses.

In February 2020, we exchanged the sequin-covered evening gown for a day dress that is very different, but no less spectacular. The dress belonged to Mrs. Emma Corbett, a prominent member of Portland society during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It dates from about 1900, when dress waists were still fitted but fashion styles shifted to sleeves with less puffy fabric at the top and the use of intricate lace embellishments was on the rise.

Details of M & A Shogren purple velvet dress owned by Emma Louise Ruggles Corbett. OHS Museum collection
Details abound on this sumptuous purple velvet dress featuring elaborate braid and trim and delicate lavender chiffon lining.
Black mesh and lace cuff details on M&A Shogren dress. OHS Museum collection
The black mesh details on the dress can be seen on the sleeve, and the lilac chiffon peeks through the lace cuff.

This sumptuous purple velvet dress is simply loaded with detail, featuring elaborate black braid work that draws attention to the shoulders and cuffs and a high neckline accented with cream lace. Inset panels on the front and sides of the bodice reveal a lilac chiffon lining overlaid with cream lace cut and positioned so the edges dangle unsecured. In some places, the lilac chiffon is a replacement for the original lilac silk fabric, which has mostly disintegrated (a common problem with certain silks of this era), a replacement that predates its donation to OHS. The dress’s most unusual detail is the black mesh panels on the hips of the skirt, which echo the same mesh panels on the sleeves. This skirt does not have an integral petticoat, but would almost certainly have included a separate black petticoat to wear under it. In the absence of such a petticoat, we chose a black fabric capable of supporting the heavy velvet skirt and to fill in space underneath the mesh panels.

Emma Louise Ruggles Corbett was born in 1846 in Massachusetts and moved to Portland shortly after marrying Henry Winslow Corbett, a prominent Portland business leader, in 1867. Her 1936 obituary in the Morning Oregonian described their important status in Portland’s history:

Than Henry W. Corbett, no man had a part more prominent in the life of pioneer Portland. He was here before railroads were. He helped to make Portland grow from a straggling village to the status of a city. He founded a family whose successive generations had and still have leading place in our civic life. He was one of our early United States senators, and the wife who has so long survived him participated with him the social life of the national capital. He founded a great banking business, which still endures. We have had no citizen of more varied public and private interests than he. And by his side through his active life, and to the day of his death, was the lady who has just died in the old family home.
Emma Ruggles Corbett, OHS Research Library, Coll. 784, box 2, folder 4
Emma Ruggles Corbett is pictured here in a photograph taken sometime after 1900. OHS Research Library, Coll. 784, box 2, folder 4
H.W. Corbett house, 1907. OHS Research Library, Kiser Photo Co., bb000429
The H.W. Corbett house is pictured here in 1907. OHS Research Library, Kiser Photo Co., bb000429

She was his second wife, his first wife Caroline Jagger having passed away in 1866. Emma long survived Henry, who died in 1903, and she lived in the Corbett residence at Southwest Fifth and Taylor streets for more than 50 years. She was in her mid-50s when she wore this dress. Emma and Henry had no children, but our records indicate the dress was passed down through the family by Henry and Caroline’s children. Katherine C. Corbett, who was also an important member of Portland society, donated the dress to OHS in 1967. She served on more than 40 civic, cultural, and philanthropic boards.

Corbett’s dress will be on display in Experience Oregon until about February 2021. While the museum is currently closed to the public due to COVID-19, we hope you enjoy these up-close details of Corbett’s dress and a peek behind the scenes showing how the museum curatorial staff works to preserve OHS collections and make them accessible to everyone.

Sources

Katherine Corbett’s, Oregonian, Friday, February 2, 2001

Emma Corbett’s obituary, Morning Oregonian, July 7, 1936, p. 6

Helen Fedchak, “M & A Shogren,” The Oregon Encyclopedia, https://oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/ma_shogren/

G. Thomas Edwards, “Henry W. Corbett (1827–1903),”  The Oregon Encyclopedia, https://oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/corbett_henry_w_1827_1903_/

Shogren Dressmakers and Ladies Tailoring, 1899–1920, Mss 2701, OHS Research Library, Portland, Oregon.

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