Story by Collections Manager Megan Osborne and Curator/Assistant Professor Katie Knowles, Ph.D.
Fort Collins resident Debra Catlow recently donated two exquisite women’s evening gowns originally from the atelier of Denver designer Julia Tobias (1902-2001), who served a distinctive clientele in the Mile High City from 1948 to 1972. Tobias’ high-end clothing was often worn by Denver and Colorado Springs society ladies. The condition of these two gowns is impeccable – which is worth mentioning, since Catlow actually discovered and purchased them at a thrift shop some years ago, before giving them to the Avenir Museum for preservation and study.
About the gowns
Both evening gowns are strapless, bear “Julia Tobias Custom Made” labels, and appear to be from two different seasonal collections. However, given their rescue from a thrift shop, we have no record of their original ownership or occasion details.
The yellow and white striped gown (Avenir Museum #2017.22.08) is made from a lovely lightweight silk with an asymmetrical drape that wraps around the dress and attaches at the center back under a large and beautifully executed rosette. Draping a wide stripe asymmetrically requires both excellent math and a confident sense of pattern, which speaks to Tobias’ skill as a designer. This dress would have been elegant attire for spring and summer soirées.
The black and white floral evening gown (Avenir Museum #2017.22.09) features a slightly heavier brocade fabric trimmed with black velvet ribbons at the back. The dark, weighty fabric with the addition of velvet trim means this gown was probably worn for formal fall or winter events. A very distinctive feature is its style of train, called a watteau after the early 18th-century French painter Antoine Watteau, who often depicted this element of women’s dress of the period. The train is attached to the gown at the upper back or the shoulders and is typically the same length as the garment itself, adding great interest to the rear view of this gown in the same way that the rosette does for the striped silk.
With the addition of these two Julia Tobias gowns, the Avenir Museum is now home to five original pieces by this signature Denver designer of the mid twentieth century. These two most recent examples of mid-century elegance are now on view at the Avenir Museum through the end of May 2018, as part of the ongoing New Threads exhibition of recent acquisitions to the collection.
Discovering unexpected details
Sometimes, provenance – the details about a museum object’s origins – comes in small pieces, at unusual times, from unexpected places.
In November 2017, members of the Denver chapter of the professional organization Fashion Group International (FGI) happened to visit the Avenir Museum to search through decades of their FGI-Denver organizational files, temporarily housed in the Avenir Reading Room. They discovered a lengthy interview with Julia Tobias published by the Denver Post on May 28, 1972, including insights into her design philosophy and the changes she witnessed in the fashion design and merchandising industry over the twenty-four years of her Denver-based career.
Accompanying the Denver Post article were several photographs of models wearing Tobias designs –including the very same yellow and white striped silk evening gown now in the Avenir Museum collection! The accompanying caption specifically dates this dress to 1959. It would have been good fortune indeed to also learn the date of the black and white brocade gown; alas, it was not referenced at all in the article.
While many details about Julia Tobias’ career remain unknown, each document rediscovered provides another tidbit about this talented Denver designer. Object-based research is often a patient and collective effort by museum staff and volunteers — and by those like the FGI-Denver members whose passion for all things fashion leads to a better understanding of the Avenir Museum collection. If you may have information or knowledge of the Denver career of designer Julia Tobias, the Avenir Museum would love to hear from you!