Kris Jenner, Mariah Carey and Madonna are among the women who have been accused of dressing too young for their age. But they are far from the first. Anna Gould, the younger daughter of the 19th-century financier and railroad tycoon Jay Gould, was challenging the fashion status quo many decades before.
Fiercely independent like her father, who was a misfit in Gilded Age society despite his vast wealth, Anna Gould loved fashion and dressed as she wished, with little care for convention.
Owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the 67-acre Lyndhurst estate is open for tours, which through Sept. 25 include a chance to see the captivating exhibition “Defying Labels: New Roles, New Clothes.” It showcases gorgeous designs from premier French couture houses and from American seamstresses they inspired, as it delves into how fashions preferred by Mr. Gould’s daughters and daughter-in-law tell a powerful story of seismic changes in women’s lives.
Described by Time magazine in 1932 as “plain, plump and not much concerned with ‘Society,’” Mr. Gould’s older daughter, Helen, lived through a period of significant change for women and became a powerhouse in the world of philanthropy.
“She studied law at New York University before the passage of suffrage. She championed women’s economic equality, helped finance the Spanish-American War and married for love at age 45,” the exhibition’s catalog says.
As the exhibition makes clear, her wardrobe was in step with the evolving life of a businesswoman who loved sports, built a bowling alley at Lyndhurst and traveled to the Middle East at a time when women never ventured beyond cultured European capitals.
The earliest piece on display is a traditional, voluminous and elaborately decorated purple silk dress from 1885 by the American seamstress M. A. Connelly. Providing contrast is a sleekly tailored travel outfit from 1912, with clean lines, a chic simplicity and even a contemporary feel.
Edith Kingdon Gould, the wife of Jay Gould’s eldest son, George, and a former actress, pursued a more traditional path with fashion. She patronized the House of Worth, preferred French couturier to American socialites and favored designs that accented her voluptuous figure. She pushed back by employing fashion and public image as weapons, helping the family compete with the Astors and others who had shunned Jay Gould.
Anna Gould was married to two French aristocrats. She divorced the first one, and following the death of the second, the Duke of Talleyrand, returned to the United States at age 64 as a refugee fleeing the Nazis.
She steals the show in “Defying Labels.”
“She displays a continuing independence in her lifelong fashion choices and refuses to give up a fashionable lifestyle despite divorce, dislocation, widowhood and old age,” the catalog says. “She embodies the modern female sensibility of dressing to please oneself.”
At Lyndhurst, Anna Gould sought to recreate her luxurious French lifestyle, buying American versions of gowns she had bought in Paris. Her outfits on display are spectacular — ranging from a super-chic sidesaddle riding outfit from Busvine of England to the Orientalist flapper dress by Agnès on loan from Palais Galliera, part of a suite that chronicles Gould’s life in Paris.
The exclamation mark is an evening gown by Maison Burano of New York from the late 1940s or early ’50s. With a tucked Basque waist, and a spray of flowers descending diagonally across its wide crinoline skirt, the long peach-colored dress is perfect for a girl feeling the first blush of womanhood. Anna Gould wore it in her 70s — without apology.
As terrific as the exhibition is, the star attraction is Lyndhurst, so ahead of its time that Mr. Zar refers to it as “the shock of the new.”
Designed in 1838 by Alexander Jackson Davis, it was built for a former New York mayor, William Paulding. Around the time of the Civil War, Davis doubled the mansion’s size for the second owner, the merchant George Merritt, who renamed it Lyndenhurst for the linden trees on the property.
Seven years after Merritt’s death, Jay Gould bought the estate in 1880 as a summer home just as he was rising to the height of his power, controlling Western Union Telegraph, the New York Elevated Railway and the Union Pacific Railroad. (He changed the name to Lyndhurst.)
“Jay Gould could get to Wall Street in 45 minutes on his yacht. This is why he was here,” Mr. Zar explained. “He came home every night.”
Each of the mansion’s rooms is impressive, and the most dramatic is the three-story art gallery. “At the beginning of the Gilded Age, this is what wealth looked like,” Mr. Zar said. The collection includes such brand-name artists as Gustave Courbet, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Theodore Rousseau, Charles Daubigny and Jean-Léon Gérôme.
Helen Gould took over Lyndhurst after her father’s death in 1892, and after she died in 1938, Anna Gould oversaw the estate until her death in 1961, when Lyndhurst went to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
“Lyndhurst had been languishing for a good decade,” before his arrival approximately three and a half years ago, Mr. Zar said. Since then, roughly $2.1 million has been spent on restoration efforts.
In addition to visiting all of the rooms in the mansion, the tour takes visitors up the 79 steps to the observatory of the newly restored Merritt Tower — with a great view of Manhattan and the Hudson River — and down 99 steps to the butler’s suite, kitchen and more. Next year, the restored bowling alley will also be to open to tours.
The grounds are as important as interiors at Lyndhurst, which in 2015 received a $500,000 state matching grant to help revitalize the lower landscape between the mansion and the Hudson River. The other $500,000 is in hand, and the project is poised to begin.
To show off the already gorgeous estate, a tour of the grounds will be offered from Sept. 4 to Sept. 25. In addition to 16 structures, including a Lord & Burnham steel-framed greenhouse, the property features an award-winning rose garden, a fern garden, a rock garden and specimen trees.
“Defying Labels” may be viewed as part of Lyndhurst tours or separately.