Monday, February 3, 2014

Baby Doe Tabor and the Red Dress

by Nancy DeWitt
© Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum

Doris Langley Moore dress.
Among our collection of 600+ historic textiles are several garments and accessories that reportedly belonged to famous figures, or people with well-known names. These include a man's morning suit custom made for E.P. Pillsbury (of the Pillsbury Foods family) and a 1930s dress custom made for Mildred Barnes Bliss, the wife of the U.S. Ambassador to Argentina (1917-1933). We also have a lovely dress from the collection of Doris Langley Moore, costume designer for Katherine Hepburn in "The African Queen," fashion historian, and founder of the Museum of Costume in Bath, England.

In some cases we can verify a costume's provenance through photographs or paperwork, but in many cases the best we can do is "attribute" the gown or suit to an individual. Such is the case with this eye-popping, red silk dress fashioned with latticed bands of crimson velvet. It was made by Chas. A. Stevens & Brothers was reportedly owned by Colorado resident Elizabeth McCourt Tabor, best known as "Baby Doe" and once called "the best dressed woman in the west."

Baby Doe was the second wife of wealthy silver magnate Horace Tabor. Horace created a scandal in 1883 when he left his first wife to marry Baby Doe, a woman almost half his age. They lived a lavish lifestyle and Baby Doe gained a "reputation of one of the most beautiful, flamboyant, and alluring women in the mining West." At one point the Tabors were among the five wealthiest families in the country, but they lost their fortune following the repeal of the Sherman Silver Act and subsequent Panic of 1893. Both died destitute, Horace in 1899 and Baby Doe in 1935. Her story inspired two books, a Hollywood movie, and the opera, The Ballad of Baby Doe.

Just as with the cars in our collection that were once owned by celebrities, a garment with an interesting provenance often leads to intriguing questions. If this dress was owned by Baby Doe during the height of her husband's wealth, it would have been made during the 1880s or early 1890s. The vibrant color, high neckline and lack of a bustle and drapery point to the latter. Yet, there are elements such as the puff sleeves, pigeon breast, and train that are more indicative of the late 1890s and early 1900s--after the Tabors lost their wealth. Perhaps Baby Doe was always on the cutting edge of fashion, and just happened to have a dress that was ahead of the fashion curve?

Regardless of its provenance, it is an exquisite dress. The color is so rich it almost makes your eyes water. In addition to the velvet lattice and elegant layers on the trained skirt, there are other fine details that delight the eye: the velvet floral accents on the bodice, the black and ivory inset lace collar, and the whimsical trim on the shoulders. One might say this dress is rather busy with so many textures and accents, but that seems appropriate for a ostentatious millionaire forever known as the "miner's sweetheart."

Coming to Fairbanks to see the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum and other area attractions? Support the museum by staying right here at Wedgewood Resort. All guests receive half-price admission to the museum!


  1. I'm so curious about this dress... could you talk more about its provenance -- how it came into your collection? Thanks for your help.

    1. Hi Cindy. We purchased the dress from Caralee’s Closet (Caralee Smith). She purchased it from Charles Whitaker Auctions and the tag from that auction says the dress was reported to have belonged to Baby Doe Tabor and was deaccessioned from the Denver At Museum.


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