The set of nine evening dresses were made between 1929 and 1938
A year-long battle to save a set of nine evening dresses made for a 1930s socialite by Paris haute couture fashion designer Madeleine Vionnet has ended in triumph after The Bowes Museum in Durham, The Fashion Museum in Bath and London's Victoria and Albert Museum formed a consortium to buy them in a £450,000 deal.
Culture Minister Barbara Follett had urged bidders to come forward last January by placing a temporary export bar on the wardrobe of beauties, described as works of "genius" from "perhaps the greatest geometrician among all French couturiers" by Vogue in 1925.
They were worn by the wealthy heiress and celebrity Lady Foley, whose eye for fashion journalism saw her join the hoi-polloi of Europe in admiring Vionnet’s lacey treats.
Acting Director Andrew Macdonald awarded more than £100,000 in Art Fund money to the purchase, and said he was "thrilled" to have kept the dresses in the UK.
"These exquisite dresses reveal the astonishing cut and design of Madeleine Vionnet's haute couture," he observed.
"Her innovative construction techniques and skilled manipulation of fabric have inspired many of today's leading fashion designers.
"Sharing the collection between the three museums is a wonderful way of allowing more people to see Vionnet's distinctive style."
1930s socialite Lady Foley wore the acclaimed designs
Vionnet championed fabrics which were luxurious and sensual, draping the body in flattering cuts with gold embroidery, floral designs and velvet ribbons.
The purchase is particularly significant for The Bowes, which will open a new Textiles and Dress Gallery in Spring 2010, and The Fashion Museum, which has galvanised its Acquisitions Fund for the first time in nine years.
"The Fashion Museum has a discerning policy of collecting fine examples of quality work, including work by leading couturiers of the last century," explained the Museum's Stephen Bird.
"We rely heavily on donations and support in kind from generous benefactors but, like any quality museum, we also have a modest fund that we use discerningly when we can lever in match funding and grant aid to acquire an exceptional piece."
Vionnet's profile has grown domestically after a major exhibition in Paris during the summer and an accompanying book published in English.
"This is a first for us, as we have no examples of work by Vionnet and she is under-represented in public collections in this country as a whole," admitted Joanna Hashagen, Keeper of Costume and Textiles at The Bowes.
"There were certainly no examples of her work in museums in the North of England until now.
"These dresses are evocative of a particular era and are very beautiful objects. They are superb examples of both Vionnet's sophisticated design and her craftsmanship, which will be appreciated by our visitors."
The group had been given until July to prove their intentions after meeting an initial April deadline to express serious interest.