How did a 1920s “high fashion” French dress find its home in the La Crosse County Historical Society’s textile collection? It is a fascinating journey.
This gorgeous dress was donated by the late Barbara McMahon in 1978. The sleeveless, drop-waist dress is a black silk chiffon, covered with floral designs of metallic sequins and tiny metal beads. Their colors darken from silver at the neckline to copper, gold and bronze as the complex design flows down to the bottom hem. (Trust me: The photo doesn’t do it justice.)
The label inside reads “Haute Couture Henry Gallet, Paris 9. Rue de Conde.” McMahon was born in 1923, so she was too young to wear this glamorous dress in the Roaring 1920s. So who did wear it?
McMahon’s parents were Frank and Gertrude Lahm. Frank, a brigadier general, was the first military officer of the U.S. Air Force to fly in an airplane, and he trained directly with Wilbur and Orville Wright. He was stationed in Paris as air attache to France, Spain and Belgium. Gertrude contracted pneumonia in 1931 and died before Frank returned home from Paris, leaving behind an 8-year-old Barbara.
Barbara’s cousin, Mary McConnell, brought Frank and Gertrude’s children, Barbara and Lawrence, to Europe to be with their father. The children stayed in Europe until Frank’s career shifted again, and he became the chief of aviation, First Army, at Governors Island New York. When the family returned to New York, Barbara married Robert Emmett McMahon in 1942. At some point the McMahons moved to La Crosse and settled down. Robert worked at Grandview and Gundersen clinics in internal medicine.
Based on the family’s travels, we can assume that this dress was owned and worn by someone in Barbara’s family and was held onto as a family memento. Her mother, Gertrude, would have been a young married woman when this dress was fashionable, and she had the means to afford its haute couture price tag, as well as a husband stationed in France who could have purchased it for her.
It also makes sense that Barbara, who lost her mother at an early age, would have saved keepsakes of her mother and treasured them for much of her life. But not having further documentation, we can only surmise. We can only say that this dress, which journeyed from France all the way to La Crosse, was cherished for many years by Barbara McMahon, and is now a cherished part of the our collection. We value it as a magnificent example of an elaborate 1920s dress as well as for the story it shares.
The Smithsonian National Air and Space Archives has a Frank Purdy Lahm collection, with photographs and information pertaining to Lahm’s life and career that was donated by Barbara and her brother, Col. Lawrence Lahm. The La Crosse County Historical Society is enriched because we get to share in this history through this stunning dress.
This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune.