On July 28, 1893, the New York Times declared that glass dresses—literally, garments made from cloth of finely spun glass—would become the latest fashion fad for well-to-do ladies. But the world’s first glass dress, finished just weeks earlier, was created as an act of desperation, not as a fresh new trend dictated by an influential fashion designer. That year, the Chicago World’s Fair was the talk of the nation: 600 acres brimming with the most dazzling and spectacular inventions the world had ever seen. Edward Libbey had invested $200,000 to build a glass furnace at the fair, a last-ditch effort he hoped would draw crowds of people dazzled by the techniques exhibited by his failing E.D. Libbey Glass Company. But when the fair opened in May, Libbey’s exhibition was a bust. No one was interesting in watching men make glass in the stifling heat when they could ride the first Ferris wheel, chew the first stick of Wrigley’s gum, cheer on Buffalo Bill Cody or roam an entire chapel constructed of Tiffany Glass. But Libbey had a trick up his sleeve: His company had pioneered the technology of spun glass and he ordered his team to create enough glass thread to weave “cloth” and sew the world’s first glass dress. The finished dress—12 yards of airy (and extremely fragile) white fabric—was presented to Georgia Cayven, then a top Broadway actress. The crowds began trickling in.
But it was a visit from the Infanta Eulalia, a controversial Spanish princess whose every move was documented when she traveled to the United States to see the fair, that proved to be Libbey’s greatest public relations coup. Libbey graciously offered the Infanta a glass dress as a gift and—after a small lunch of little-neck clams, Spanish omelet, planked whitefish, deviled lobster, broiled snipe, cucumbers, potatoes, salad and cheese—grandly presented her with a lustrous gown of finely spun glass “as fine as silk, soft, white, pliable, and lustrous.” The Infanta was wowed, and appointed the Libbey Glass Company glassmakers to his Royal Highness the King of Spain.
The question was: Could the dresses be worn? Libbey seemed to think so , and he employed a little trick to his fairy tale dresses that supposedly allowed for functionality. Weaving, as many know, is achieved through a warp and a weft—threads that are interlaced vertically and horizontally. For Libbey’s dresses, only the weft employed glass fibers; the warp was made of fine but strong silk. Still, production was slow and precarious: One loom operated by a girl produced just half a yard a day.
The news of the dress created a craze, with thousands of ladies climbing over each other (“in ecstacies,” according to the New York Times) to see the extravagance the company created for about $25,000. The Infanta promised to wear the dress back in Spain at the first opportunity, but it turns out that the fabric couldn’t hold up. Though it’s unknown how the Infanta learned of the dress’s fragility, many years later it was reported that the glass strands were apparently so fragile that “the slightest effort to bend them would cause them to snap and splinter into a thousand pieces.”
Nevertheless, the New York Times wild prediction of glass dresses as the next new fad wasn’t far off the mark. By 1895, a variety of garments and linens were extensively made of glass. A Venetian manufacturer turned out bonnets—which not only shimmered brilliantly but were impervious to water—by the thousands. In Russia, a secret process apparently shredded a “peculiar filamentous stone from the Siberian mines” and spun it into a durable, pliable and soft fabric that “never wears out.” In Austria, an inventor created a new process of spun-glass silk for fashionable evening dresses. If stained, the Austrian gowns were none the worse for wear; simply scrub them clean with a hard brush and soap and water.
And in early 1902, England’s Strand Magazine dedicated an entire feature to “the most marvelous and beautiful dress in the world,” a glass dress that could actually be worn and that was owned by Miss Ellene Jaqua, a singer and society belle of Brooklyn. Jaqua’s dress required five months to spin its 74 yards of glass in a secret process in Dresden, Germany, and was cut in Paris. Its “shimmering folds dazzle the eyes and bewilder the brain of all who gaze upon the creation,” gushed the Strand, followed by paragraph after paragraph rapturously describe the effects: “Delicate shades of pale green, blue, and silver-white blend into each other with bewildering rapidity as the light falls upon the folds,” and “the full fringe…scintillates in the light.” And so on and so on.
For all its charms, Jacqua’s dress may have been the last of its kind: The fad seems to have died shortly after she wore hers, possibly due to the fact that such a gown was not only unaffordable for most but probably impossible to top. Recently though, there have been hints at an interest in the return of glass dresses. This past March, Helmer, a designer in Montreal, presented a dress of 800 glass tubes, and last month a student at the University of Delaware created a 25-pound dress of glass beads. Who knows? Maybe someone will even develop a process that allows glass to once again weave into silk, like the first fairytale dress at the fair more than a century ago. —Ali Basye
Photos: Top: Georgia Cayvan in her glass dress, circa 1893; Bottom: Ellene Jaqua, wearing her (more wearable) glass dress, Strand Magazine, 1902.