The granddaughter who inherited a £35,000 haute couture dress reveals the bittersweet story behind the masterpiece

Beneath the high ceilings of the grand salon at 30 avenue Montaigne in Paris, the crème de la crème of French society was on the edge of their seats when Christian Dior unveiled his fall-winter 1949 collection.

Only two years had passed since the haute couture designer revolutionized the post-war fashion world with his extravagant and ultra-romantic New Look.

Among those who unearthed outfits from the designer’s latest highly anticipated Mid-Century collection, Adeline Barbusse, the French diplomat’s wife, opted for a sumptuous black strapless evening dress to take to Damascus, Syria, for the latest assignment of her husband.

Little did she realize that one day, more than seven decades later, the stunning hand-sewn silk velvet and taffeta dress would take center stage in an extraordinary, bittersweet family story; a story marred by tragedy but ultimately redeemed by love.

When Adeline died in 1956 at the age of 38, after pricking her finger on a sewing needle and developing sepsis, the dress was stashed in a suitcase in the attic of the family home in the south of France. France.

Eventually, decades later, it was given to Adeline’s British granddaughter.

Named after the grandmother she never met, Adeline Vining, from Edlesborough, Buckinghamshire, guessed from the tag and serial number that the dress was special. But it wasn’t until she became a detective a few months ago that the 36-year-old mother of two discovered the amazing story behind this legacy.

Adeline Vining, 36, wearing the unique 1949/50 Dior dress that belonged to her late French grandmother. Adeline’s grandparents were posted to Syria shortly after buying the dress, where her grandfather was a cultural attaché.

As one of Dior’s earliest designs – and with only one other known example – the Hortense dress was valued between £30,000 and £35,000. But for Adeline, the real value of the 73-year-old garment is that it brought back forgotten memories of her grandmother.

“I don’t think I could part with it, although the money would be nice,” says Adeline, a coffee maker. “I love the dress too much to let it go. It’s absolutely gorgeous, and just putting it on lifts my spirits. It has huge sentimental value.

The dress was first discovered in the months following the death of Adeline’s grandfather, French diplomat Pierre Barbusse, in 1995. Adeline’s mother, Laurence, the fifth of the Barbusse children, who n he was only two years old when her mother died, found her sorting through the attic of the vast 19th century house in the village of Aimargues, still owned by the family.

She put it aside for her own daughter – then ten years old – thinking she might wear it one day.

“I always knew it was old,” says Adeline, who doesn’t remember exactly when her mother gave it to her, but says she’s had it for over a decade. “But I didn’t know when or where my grandmother bought it. I just hoped I could wear it one day.

“It’s amazing that it’s stayed in such good condition and hasn’t been nibbled on by mice or bugs for all those years it’s been forgotten in the attic.”

Recently, after trying on the dress and finding to her delight that it fit her perfectly, Adeline took to social media – posting snippets of the dress on TikTok – in hopes of finding out more at his subject.

Journey to the past: Adeline's grandmother, Adeline Barbusse, is pictured circa 1950 wearing the dress while dancing with a stranger at an official ceremony

Journey to the past: Adeline’s grandmother, Adeline Barbusse, is pictured circa 1950 wearing the dress while dancing with a stranger at an official ceremony

She was put in touch with fashion historian and costume designer Henry Wilkinson, who discovered another example of the Hortense dress – Dior named all of its designs – at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, confirming her belief. that it was from Dior Fall 1949. -winter collection.

“Because it was haute couture, every dress would have been custom-made,” says Henry. “The customer would have had a say in small changes – a different color or trim – as long as they didn’t question the integrity of the design.”

Key to this information is the unique serial number on Adeline’s dress – 07675 – which is said to have been written in a logbook at the Atelier Dior, along with information about its owner.

Adeline has contacted Dior for help with information on the dress, but has yet to receive a response from the brand’s archivist. However, according to Oriole Cullen, Senior Curator of Fashion and Textiles at the V&A Museum in London, the dress is a “wonderful find” and would have been “unbelievably expensive” – ​​even in 1949. While the exact price that large -Adeline’s parents paid is not yet known, in the 1950s Dior’s most elaborate evening dresses could cost up to £2,000, equivalent to £24,000 today.

“It’s part of a really interesting collection,” says Oriole. “The construction almost looks like a large square tablecloth with a hole in the middle over a taffeta petticoat, which would have made a wonderful sound as it moved.

“It was in 1949, on the eve of the middle of the century. For Dior, the Milieu du Siècle collection was geared towards the future. Those who had lived through the war were happy to leave the 1940s behind.

According to Oriole, the same collection was part of Dior’s first show in London at the Savoy in April 1950. The following day, the dresses were modeled for the Queen Mother and Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret in a private exhibition at the residence of the ambassador of France.

Adeline took the dress to Kerry Taylor Auctions in East London last month, which specializes in vintage fashion.

What made her cry, she said, wasn’t finding out how much it was worth, but the fact that they confirmed it had been worn.

“Before, I wasn’t even sure that my grandmother had ever had the chance to wear the dress,” says Adeline. “She died so young, and my mother, who was only two years old when she lost her, had no memory of her. I was so upset.

Adeline got in touch with her extended and now very distant family, begging her uncles and aunt to look for photos of her grandmother in the Dior dress.

After weeks of searching, a photograph was finally unearthed of Adeline wearing it while dancing with a stranger at a party in Damascus, to which her husband Pierre had been posted as the French government’s cultural attaché in 1949.

It was a period of political and social instability in Syria which, governed by the French mandate since the end of the First World War, had just gained independence. Pierre’s “soft diplomacy” role was to defend his country’s current interests in Syria.

As a wife, nothing could have been more appropriate for Adeline to promote French culture by wearing the creations of their country’s most famous haute couture designer. Captured by the photographer in full swing, her gown – complete with luscious handkerchief-style skirt – can be seen in all its glory.

“It couldn’t be a more perfect shot,” says Adeline. “It’s wonderful to see her dancing and looking so happy in that dress.

“Apparently my grandfather said she liked to socialize and was a real party girl in her day, but she was also totally devoted to her husband and children.” The discovery of photography prompted Adeline to get in touch with her older aunt, Marie-Hélène, who lives in France and is now 80 years old. She was 15 when her mother died and she remembers both the dress and the devastating events surrounding her death.

“My aunt had blocked out a lot of memories and she would like to remember more of them,” says Adeline.

“But she remembers the dress bought in 1949 for the trip to Syria.

“It was an important and special purchase, even for my grandmother.” Life in the Syrian capital was both frenetic and glamorous for the Barbusse family. In 1949, Adeline had four children under the age of ten. There was a gap of eight years before she gave birth to Laurence – Adeline’s mother – in Damascus in 1954.

In 1956, she was again pregnant with her sixth child. A passionate seamstress, Adeline was sewing a ball gown for her eldest daughter when she pricked her finger with a needle.

“My aunt said she was sewing at night to try to finish it and the light was bad,” says Adeline. “Her finger got infected and she got it treated in Syria, but she had problems for a while.

“My grandfather had a lot of important people visiting and among them was a man who my aunt said was either the health secretary or the chief medical officer. He looked at my grandmother’s finger and said, “It’s gangrene. We have to take you back to Paris. ‘

Pierre and Adeline flew home, where doctors amputated her finger, only to find she had developed sepsis, which spread to her brain.

“They performed an emergency caesarean section to save her baby, but it was too late to save my grandmother,” says Adeline.

In the aftermath of this catastrophic loss, the Barbusse family is grieving. Marie-Hélène takes charge of the management of the family home and takes care of the elders.

Adeline’s mother was raised by an uncle and aunt – who moved to London as a teenager, where she married – while the newborn baby girl was raised by her maternal grandparents.

Pierre was heartbroken over the loss of his beautiful, vivacious wife, whom he met at a family wedding when she was just 11 – and he never remarried.

Years later, Pierre, recipient of the Legion of Honor, becomes French Ambassador to Ecuador. In 1973, a photo of him appeared in several British newspapers kissing the hand of Princess Anne, who visited the country on a honeymoon with Captain Mark Phillips. Pierre lived without his beloved Adeline for almost 40 years, ending his days in the house of Aimargues.

Today, Adeline says, it’s a time capsule, filled with 18th-century furniture and paintings. Who knows what other secrets he may still reveal?

As for the dress, Adeline was told by the expert who considered her that she should not be worn. But while she is determined to keep him safe, she finds herself inexorably drawn to him and lives in hope of one day being invited to an event where she can wear him.

“I like the weight of this one; the rustle of the skirt when I move,” she says. “It’s a connection with my grandmother and with the past.

“I wish I could have met her, but having her dress is joyful.”

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