This guest post was written by Rebecca Kelly, NHS Visiting Curator of Fashion History.
Mary Charlotte O’Hara was born in Kilkenny, Ireland and emigrated to the United States in the late 1880s. Upon her arrival, she was welcomed into a growing community of Irish dry goods merchants and dressmakers living and working in New York City.
In 1897 she first appeared in Vogue magazine through her participation in the “Second Annual Model Doll Show.” New York designers were challenged to work up ½ scale dresses which were shown on small forms or dolls to showcase their creativity. Society women sponsored the design awards. O’Hara received a $100 prize for her first-place finish in the dinner and ball gown category.
Following this victory, she consistently advertised in Vogue, noting her dressmaking establishment at 359 Lexington Avenue, New York City and a resort shop in Bar Harbor, Maine. Her weekly advertisements in Vogue cease by the end of 1898, but census records and city directories indicate that she continued working in dressmaking and millinery under her husband’s name, David Seaton. Between 1900 and 1905, they had an establishment on Perry Street in Newport in addition to their New York store.
By 1908 O’Hara was again advertising under her own label. She also had a new address: the Audrain Building on Newport’s famed Bellevue Avenue. The Audrain Building and its surrounding area were part of a distinguished commercial and social center for Newport’s summer colony and Mollie dressed many of its women, including Alice Vanderbilt.
Mollie worked as both a designer and importer of gowns. In the early 20th century, the cachet of the “made in Paris” label was incredibly powerful. As an importer, she made bi-annual trips to Paris to view collections and purchase new designs, paying expensive licensing fees to make authenticated copies of French fashions in New York. She also continued to win design prizes for her original pieces. Her gowns and suits exhibit intriguing design features, fine sewing, and inventive use of decadent fabrics.
O’Hara further expanded her business to the resort destination of Palm Beach, Florida, but continued to summer in Newport until her death in 1941.
Several Mollie O’Hara gowns will be on display as part of the summer 2021 exhibition, A World in Motion: Fashion and Modernity, 1885-1945 at the Newport Historical Society and The Audrain Automobile Museum.