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Alexandra Deutsch, left, vice president of collections and interpretation, and Allison Tolman, acting vice president of collections, examine a Lottie Barton dress, designed for First Lady Frances Cleveland, preserved at Maryland Historical Society in preparation for a display.
Alexandra Deutsch, left, vice president of collections and interpretation, and Allison Tolman, acting vice president of collections, examine a Lottie Barton dress, designed for First Lady Frances Cleveland, preserved at Maryland Historical Society in preparation for a display. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

The name Lottie Barton is unrecognized today. But in the 1890s, in the fashionable households of Mount Vernon and Charles Street, she was a force.

As Baltimore’s most successful dress designer — newspapers called her a “modiste” — she employed more than 80 seamstresses in a her fashion salon at what is today’s Sotto Sopra Restaurant.

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Carlotta Mary “Lottie” Barton, clothed Baltimore’s affluent women and dressed two presidents’ wives, Frances Cleveland and Caroline Harrison. She died in 1902 of a heart attack and her business disappeared shortly thereafter. But as perishable as her silk and lace creations were, several of her prized gowns survived in the trunks of those who could not bear to discard a family heirloom. Her own life story did not survive until it was recently discovered on a gold embroidery label that read “Barton of Baltimore.”

The lost tale of Lottie Barton emerged in a curious setting, in the former Howard Street Greyhound Bus garage, now repurposed as the Maryland Historical Society’s exhibition space and archival rooms. This chamber, the Bohanan textile room, holds a collection of dresses, suits and uniforms worn by Marylanders in the past 285 years.

“Scholars overlook the importance of Baltimore as a taste center at the turn of the 20th century,” said Nora Ellen Carleson, a scholar with the historical society. “Among her peers, Lottie Barton was a leading force in shaping the sartorial identity of the city. Importing goods, creating her own designs and altering fashions, she made wardrobes for debutantes, socialites and first ladies. Barton’s legacy is that of high fashion in Baltimore. Though overlooked by some, Baltimore is and was a fashion city.”

Emily Bach, research associate for the fashion archives and Allison Tolman, acting vice president of collections, examine a turn-of-the-century piece by Baltimore dressmaker Lottie Barton at the Maryland Historical Society.
Emily Bach, research associate for the fashion archives and Allison Tolman, acting vice president of collections, examine a turn-of-the-century piece by Baltimore dressmaker Lottie Barton at the Maryland Historical Society. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Allison Tolman, Maryland Historical Society’s acting vice president of collections, and her curatorial associates are now preparing for the October opening of their show, “Spectrum of Fashion: Celebrating Maryland's Style,” which explores how clothing is interwoven with local and national history.

This is no ordinary clothes closet. There are World War I nurses uniforms and 18th century ball gowns housed along with the Duke of Windsor’s suit.

The exhibit also tells a secondary story, how the Maryland Historical Society made a specialty of saving and preserving these donated treasures. This collection is now a major repository of sartorial history.

Curators and researchers, using a few scraps — perhaps a small label or invoice — have been able to place these hand-tailored and embellished pieces in a historical context. The work of Lottie Barton, for example, emerged in this way. Her name on a label led researchers to a newspaper story and a census record. Soon a more complete biography emerged of a person, who, in her time, was well recognized.

Emily Bach, research associate for the fashion archives, shares information about a Pelisse from the Regency era, with summer interns Emily McCort, Vivien Barnett, and AnnaLivia McCarthy, at Maryland Historical Society in preparation for a clothing display.
Emily Bach, research associate for the fashion archives, shares information about a Pelisse from the Regency era, with summer interns Emily McCort, Vivien Barnett, and AnnaLivia McCarthy, at Maryland Historical Society in preparation for a clothing display. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Lottie Barton once made national news when New York customs agents went through her trunks as she entered the country after a buying junket to Europe. She faced import duties on luxury goods.

“Few mercantile houses in Baltimore have acquired so extended and desirable a reputation as that gained by Miss Barton in the quarter century she has figured in the business life of this community,” The Sun said in 1902 when she died. “She had a large clientele in Philadelphia, New York and Washington. … Maidens and matrons accepted her dictums without challenge.”

After her funeral was held at the Basilica of the Assumption and her burial at New Cathedral Cemetery in West Baltimore, her sisters tried unsuccessfully to hold the business together.

Lottie Barton, and her fellow custom designers and makers, operated separately from another Baltimore industry, the ready-to-wear clothing manufacturers, whose loft sewing rooms were located near the Bromo Seltzer Tower.

“We know of three Lotties we own, but there could be more,” Tolman said. “That burst of couture was really strong in Baltimore in the 1890s and by the 1940s, people were giving us their grandmothers’ gowns.”

Volunteer curatorial assistant Barbara Meger proofreads labels with costumes to verify that the information being prepared for a book is correct at Maryland Historical Society in preparation for a clothing display. The clothing spans four centuries.
Volunteer curatorial assistant Barbara Meger proofreads labels with costumes to verify that the information being prepared for a book is correct at Maryland Historical Society in preparation for a clothing display. The clothing spans four centuries. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)
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