Model books and swatch books are books provided to dressmakers
and retailers like the Tirocchi sisters by manufacturers and vendors.
Swatch books contain samples (swatches) of fabric. The fanciest
of the books illustrate dresses made from these fabrics to show
dressmakers and clients just how these textiles could be used. Often
the illustrations sold the fabrics, as clients imagined themselves
in the illustrated gowns.
Today the term "model" in a fashion context calls up
an image of an attractive young woman who wears a designers
clothes, in advertisements or fashion shows, in order to sell them.
The model books remaining in the Tirocchi shop did not contain photographs
of fashion models. Rather, they illustrated models, or examples,
of couture designs and ready-made dresses that could be ordered
from a particular vendor, such as Harry Angelo or Magginis &
A typical page from a model book would showin illustration,
not photographsa back view and a front view of a particular
dress. Sometimes the books were in color, but often they were not.
Each page carried a description of the gown, plus the designers
name, plus an order number.
The name of the designer was a critical piece of information. Women
read the latest fashion magazines and often came into the shop asking
for a dress by a particular designerwhoever was hot that season.
Parisian couture houses sold American manufacturers the right to
manufacture and sell a version of a particular dress design as long
as the designers name was associated with the final product.
In this way, their designs reached a larger market in the ready-to-wear
trade. American women were thrilled with this arrangement because
it meant they could have a Chanel dress without going to Paris and
paying couture prices.
Customer orders in the Tirocchi shop often reference the numbers
in these model books, along with descriptions of how the model dress
was to be altered for a particular client. By comparing orders and
books, the curators can trace the popularity of certain designers
or styles year by year.
The books themselves are an invaluable record of fashion history
and helped the curators unravel the puzzle of what a model gown
actually was. In early books, like those from the New York City
department store B. Altman, showed that the model gown was a Parisian
design that could be made by the dressmaker if she ordered the illustrated
materials and notions. Later books indicated that as ready-to-wear
"wholesale couture" established itself, model gowns referred
to the actual dress, a Paris copy, that could be purchased through
Beyond this, the model books also illustrate fashion trends; show
the availability of Paris designs in America at certain periods;
indicate what New York suppliers chose out of Paris collections;
and show which fabrics were available in America at the time. The
books in the Tirocchi shop sometimes had handwritten notes in them
that linked certain model gowns to clients, so that the curators
could verify the origin of a certain dress design for a particular
>> explore other evidence discovered in