Oprah’s Corset-Maker Tries Her Hand at History

Photo: Seth Tillett

Starting May 2, couturier and head designer behind House of Execution, Camilla Huey, will be abandoning her celebrity clientele (a list that includes Oprah Winfrey, Celine Dion, Katy Perry, and Anna Wintour), for a four-month dip into history — specifically, into the lives of eight women who were all linked to former Vice-President Aaron Burr.

The upcoming exhibition, called “The Loves of Aaron Burr: Portraits in Corsetry and Binding,” will feature eight handcrafted corsets inspired by the letters each woman wrote during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which will fill the rooms of Burr’s former residence, Harlem Heights’ historic Morris-Jumel Mansion. The making of these corsets actually began as a personal side project for Huey, just after she moved to the area and stumbled upon the mansion.

What resulted was six years of intensive research — during which Huey visited France, rifled through archives at Bibliothèque Nationale, and traveled to New Orleans — until she finally decided that she needed to create something tangible with her newfound knowledge. “I needed for a moment to step away from archives and paper and I wanted to personify the women in materials that I’m familiar with,” she explained. The Cut spoke to Huey over the phone to discuss her thoughts on the lack of female voices in history, her entry into corset design, and her creative process. Click through the slideshow for a first look at these fine-boned sculptures.

You studied painting in college. What pulled you toward couture and corsets?
I studied textile design in great depth while I was in college, and actually came to New York as a textile designer and freelanced for several years. Then I got a job with a couturier Sander Witlin, who was on the Upper East Side, and it was all private clientele. I went from being his textile designer, hand-painting textiles, to being his firsthand. I went to FIT to take some courses to supplement the technical knowledge to have about pattern-making and draping, but mostly, it was hands-on. I was doing eight or nine sittings a day, with the leading socialites in the city. I met everyone from Jacqueline Onassis on down. It was my equivalent of grad school. I really came to understand textiles, the human body, how things fit. New York in the eighties was awash in money, and it was kind of like living in a Guy de Maupassant novel.

What specifically about the letters inspired you? Have you always been interested in this group of women?
I started reading about Madame Jumel, and although she was from the Colonial era and contemporary to Martha Washington and Dolly Madison, she was modern. It was fascinating to see how unexplored women’s histories in the history of this country are. It was an incredibly volatile time and emotionally, a really challenging time between the war and the actual founding of the country. You always hear of the statesmen and the wars and the generals, but you don’t hear very much about the women and what they thought and how they cared and what occupied them.

How did this translate into you creating corset sculptures?
As I was researching the travels and years of these women, who were young and active and creating their lives, I wanted to have something that was more immediate gratification. I think easily in terms of fashions, fabrics, trends. One of the women, her name’s Leonora Sansay, started a company creating artificial flowers made out of silk, which is something you can still find here in New York in the garment center. I read a business letter from this woman written to Aaron Burr, and she’s talking about how she would love to see him, but that she’s much too busy. She writes a description of her business, which is like a couture business, but with flowers. [Laughs.] And it felt so familiar, and so charming. Also, there are only twelve firsthand accounts of the Haitian Revolution. Hers is one of them; she’s the only woman who has written about the revolution. So it’s a very unique perspective. So, I started with her, and I wanted bits of silk flowers in the corset along with her writing.

Any other special corsets planned for the exhibition?
There’s another piece that’s a corset and dress cast in resin that represents Theodosia Burr, the daughter, who was in a ship that was lost at sea. Some say that she was made to walk the plank, others say that the ship was caught in a gale and sank. But when she was en route to New York to meet her father after his exile, she had all his papers with her in trunks and all of that was lost. He had a manuscript, a first-hand account of the revolutionary war and the founding of the country, all of his legal papers, all of his papers from being vice-president under Thomas Jefferson. All of that was lost at sea, as well as her life.

Why did you choose to cast it in resin?
It has the effect of water. It’s colored and the dress is half-submerged — just the upper part of it. Inside that corset, I wrote the account of what they think happened to her ship at sea on linen.

Was it tough choosing just eight women after six long years of research?
I originally had seven women and have continued to add new women, like Mary Emmons, who was a slave or servant in the Burr household when they were in Philadelphia when he was a senator. Aaron Burr and Mary had children together — and as research for her, I’ve been in touch with their two great-great granddaughters, 92 and 94, in Philadelphia. I’ve been in touch with them by telephone and will be going there soon. It was one of the last corsets that I put together but I’m deeply attached to it.

Why Aaron Burr? He wasn’t the reason that you started the research, but he seems somewhat central to the project.
He’s the nexus. He’s the way all these women are connected and I have accounts of them introducing different ones of them to another, so he’s a very important part of it. But he isn’t the reason that I started it. I was interested in the women and their histories and how they navigated their circumstances. Aaron Burr was the man that everyone would be drawn to in a room. He was highly intelligent, he had a very secure personality. And he was a feminist! He was one of the few founding fathers who did believe that not only women had rights, but he believed that women had souls, which most men, including Thomas Jefferson, didn’t even believe. It’s a turn of a concept that takes minutes to sink in because that’s how low the rights of women were. And that Abigail Adams was saying to John Adams, “Remember the ladies.” Well, he didn’t. He went to the Constitutional Convention and women were chattle.