THE OBJECT: A House of Worth wedding gown
FIRST WORN: January 2, 1922, at Fourth Presbyterian Church
CURRENT LOCATION: Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark St.; 312-642-4600, chicagohistory.org
They were the Jen and Brad of their day. Scions of two storied Chicago families, Mary Landon Baker and Allister McCormick were attractive, wealthy, gregarious, destined to be together—or so it seemed. “Popular members of the younger set” and “exceptionally clever dancers,” noted their engagement announcement on February 11, 1921, in the Chicago Daily Tribune. In January the next year, Baker made international headlines when she left McCormick standing at the Fourth Presbyterian altar in front of a Gold Coast crowd and $100,000 worth of gifts. English papers dubbed her the “shy bride,” and for the next two years, reporters chronicled the capricious romance as Baker followed her jilted groom to London. At least four times they announced, then postponed, a wedding.
This silk velvet dress, custom made in 1921 by the Parisian haute couture firm House of Worth, partly tells their story, says Timothy Long, curator of costumes at the Chicago History Museum, which opens a wedding-themed exhibition, I Do! Chicago Ties the Knot, on May 22nd. “There are a few alterations to it, which tells me she tried to update her look each time she thought about going to the chapel,” says Long. “The dress plays an important part in the story because it wasn’t until she put it on that she got cold feet.” The gown apparently never saw a successful wedding: McCormick ultimately married an Englishwoman in 1923. Baker refused a reported 67 proposals and died unmarried in 1961. She was left with $2,234 to her name and the distinction of contributing to the vernacular of the day: In the 1920s, when someone failed to show at a party, he or she had “Mary Bakered.”
Photograph: Jack Perno