The Fashion of Adelicia Acklen

The 19th century was a time of great change in women's fashion. The century began with high waistlines and straight skirts, and by the 1850s, the style had evolved into a more natural waistline and full skirt. Adelicia Acklen's clothing choices showcase the most fashionable trends from Europe and North America during that time. Follow Belmont Mansion as we embark on a nine part series showcasing the dresses, jewelry, and fashion choices of Adelicia Acklen.

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There is no doubt that Adelicia Hayes Franklin Acklen Cheatham was known in Nashville, if not in American society, for her fashion choices. She made quite the domineering impression in 1866 when she and her French driver, dressed in full livery, arrived at church in her cockade hat “appearing as a duchess.” On another occasion, her fashionable taste was featured in Queens of American Society.[1] William Acklen, Adelicia’s son, wrote in his account, “In memory I often see my mother in her beautiful gowns which came from Paris, (one of which I particularly remember with rows of beads crossing and recrossing.)” Unfortunately, Adelicia’s fashionable dress collection chiefly exists only in the photographs and portraits Belmont Mansion possesses today and there is still much mystery surrounding her undoubtedly designer clothing. A few newspaper articles describing various balls and events at Belmont also give insight into Adelicia’s fashion sense. One dress is described in particular in several sources on two different occasions as being the dress that she was presented in at the court of Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie. It is described as a pearl or white silk dress which was trimmed with point d’alencon lace, worn with a brussels point lace veil, a diamond necklace, bracelet, diamond clasped girdle, and of course her diamond tiara, which was a gift from the Emperor and Empress for her marriage to Dr. William Cheatham.[2] This dress description is consistent with the color that a woman would have worn to be presented in at the French or English court. Another dress is described in the Daily American in its description of a dinner party given at Belmont. Adelicia wore a black silk dress trimmed in point d’alencon lace with diamonds.[3]

Despite that the exact contents of Adelicia’s wardrobe are still unknown, several designers of her clothing are known. It seems she frequently shopped at a dress shop called Madame Olympia’s indicating that much of which she owned may have been from Madame Olympe Boisse. Madame Olympe, based in New Orleans visited her birth place of France often to stay current with the latest fashions and was one of the first American designers to label her creations.[4] William Acklen also wrote of her gowns from Paris being designed by a “Piugot.” It is likely, in his context, he actually meant the highly sought after designer Emile Pingat. Pingat was known for his extremely meticulous detailed work though not much is known about Pingat personally.[5] She also had at least one gown by Charles Frederick Worth, another of the prominent Parisian designers of the time.[6] Knowing that these designers crafted at least some of her wardrobe, her dresses were almost certainly exquisite. Fortunately, some photographs of other types of dress she wore can continue to illustrate the story of Adelicia’s fashion, some of which can be seen below.

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[1] Albigence Waldo Putnam, journal, November of 1866; and Elizabeth Fries Ellet, The Queens of American Society (Philadelphia: Porter and Coates, 1873), 419-20.

[2] Ellet, The Queens of American Society, 419-420; and Belmont Mansion, Research files, Acklen Family, Adelicia, Cheatham Wedding (1867) Transcript from a newspaper clipping from 1867 found in a scrapbook in possession of Dr. Mack Wayne Craig.

[3] Daily American, May 29, 1881.

[4] Adelicia shopped at a dress shop called, “Madame Olympia’s” in New Orleans on October 31st 1868, William Ackland Papers, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and The Metropolitan Museum Collection Records, http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/157899 accessed on August 8th, 2016.

[5] Belmont Mansion, Research files, Acklen Family, Acklen, William H- Journal “Scion of Belmont,” 18; and The Metropolitan Museum collection Records, http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/159180 accessed on August 8th, 2016.

[6] Mark Brown, interview with Franck Kaiser, grandson of Adelicia.

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Photos by Ed Houk