It’s New York, 1904, inside a box at the still relatively new Metropolitan Opera and Mrs. Astor is there. Yes, loyal viewers of The Gilded Age, and sorry for the spoiler, but eventually she gave in. The battle between the old money of The Academy of Music and the new moneyed Metropolitan Opera chronicled in this season’s Gilded Age reached a peak in 1883 at the opening of the Met, a shiny new building at 1411 Broadway that had, as a selling point, 122 opera boxes.
All the better to show off your jewels, my dear.
On that night in 1904, display them she did. Mrs. Astor, according to an article covering the opera opening night in The Washington Post, wore a white gown accented with black satin ribbons, she had a tiara on, and a “girdle of diamonds” and a necklace.
At the center of it all? A large diamond bow brooch finished with two long tassels. Keen observers would remark that it was an historic jewel, acquired at the infamous auction of the French Crown Jewels in 1887 and the former property of the Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III and the last Empress of France. They might also insist on using the correct terminology.
This was no brooch, my friends. That there was what we call a stomacher. Had Mrs. Astor had that level of jewelry armor in 1883, might the Academy of Music still stand? A question to which we will never have the answer. But here is what we know.
A Stomacher, You Said?
For a precise definition of the term, I turn to my jewelry detective comrade Rebecca Selva, creative director of Fred Leighton. The word, Selva explains, is rooted in a kind of practicality. “With a design following the shape of an inverted triangle, historically stomachers were pinned to the bodice, below the chest and cleavage, with pendants to accentuate the length of the fitted bodice. Hence the name—they were worn on the stomach.”
The shape and fashion came first, the jewels arrived a bit later. The human primal instinct for adornment gradually led to the addition of pearls and beads to the material, and soon, sensing an opportunity, jewelers offered their clients an opportunity to display their resources and status more explicitly. Pearls and diamonds were added, and the jeweled stomacher was born. “The stomacher first come into fashion in the Renaissance,” says Frank Everett, Sothebys Vice Chairman, Jewelry, “they then fell out in the 18th century, and made a comeback in the late 19th /early 20th century. They’re usually made of multiple components that detach and can be worn in a variety of ways. I absolutely see them as an addition place to wear jewelry to demonstrate extreme wealth, status, and power.”
In the Gilded Age, that trifecta was best achieved with jewels not only designed with major stones but also with royal provenance. The new rising stars of New York society wanted noble associations. Marriage was one way to get them; jewels another. Mrs. Vanderbilt (the clear inspiration for Mrs. Russell) famously wore a rope of pearls that belonged to Catherine the Great. But even old New York was not immune to royal charms: Mrs. Astor’s stomacher had major Royal-and style-provenance. Empress Eugenie was the daughter of Spanish nobility and was keenly aware of how fashion could shape her power and identity. She supported talents like Charles Worth but also cleverly sought inspiration in Marie Antoinette. Her jewels like her famous corsage brooch and Greek key tiara set trends.
But when word reached her in 1870 that France has been defeated in the Franco Prussian war, she fled, and left her jewels behind. Soon after the new government started stripping royal jewels of their most valuable stones and in 1887 staged an auction. The biggest buyers were American brokers (including Tiffany who bought 24 of the 69 lots) seeking to satisfy the needs of Gilded Age hosts and heiresses. The prized Empress Eugenie stomacher went to the Queen of New York: The Mrs. Astor. It was sold at Christies in 2008 and can now be seen in the Apollon Gallery at the Louvre. (You need a special ticket to get in there. Its worth it.)
Other notable stomachers? Queen Mary of Teck—she of the Romanov Vladimir tiara—also had a famous stomacher, a three-tiered diamond jewel that included three pear shaped pendants. She later gifted it to her granddaughter Queen Elizabeth at her wedding to Prince Philip of Greece. The Queen wore it in more modest ways throughout her reign (stomachers often come apart to be word as pendants or smaller lapel brooches) and then, in full majesty for her Golden Jubilee celebration at Windsor Castle.
Does Anyone Still Wear a Stomacher?
Funny you should ask. In early December 2023, stomachers were back in the news. Queen Camilla wore one to a diplomatic reception at Buckingham Palace where she posed for official portraits. Front and center on her embroidered cream gown: a stomacher that once belonged to the Queen Mother.
The sighting of a stomacher brought cheers in certain circles. “Amen,” says Selva, “to seeing this magnificent brooch worn and its beauty celebrated, and to see the word “stomacher” in the news. However, wondering if it’s pinned a bit too high—if one considers how traditionally should be worn or how this large and magnificent brooch could be.” The investigation continues. “I see,” Selva says “that Queen Elizabeth also wore a magnificent antique stomacher brooch pinned high, in the same fashion as Camilla Parker Bowles. Hmmm…Well, thankfully we aren’t wearing the fashions and tight corseted bodices of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century. And I’m all for wearing brooches, and all jewels, in a creative and individual way. Make it yours is my motto.”
Everett, however, cautions about getting too excited. “Since stomachers require formal gowns with structure, and a tightly fitted bodice of stiff fabric, I don’t quite see them making a return. They were generally worn with only the most elaborate dresses, for ceremonial occasions. Modern fabrics simply won’t support the weight. Also, they only work when the wearer is standing. Sitting down in a stomacher isn’t exactly practical.” But Selva remains steadfast: “So, whether this gorgeous stomacher could have been best worn pinned a bit lower or worn on the shoulder (wouldn’t that have been fabulous—and practical!) Camilla Parker Bowles has brought it out of the royal jewel box. And to that, I say Bravo to her.” Either way, the stomacher on the shoulder does sound like it might, in fact, have legs.
Editor-in-Chief Stellene Volandes is a jewelry expert, and the author of Jeweler: Masters and Mavericks of Modern Design (Rizzoli).