The shop’s clients were women who were accustomed to very personal attention and to deference from those in commercial positions. This led to complicated relationships with their dressmakers. On the one hand, they prized Madame Tirocchi’s advice and talent and depended on it for their social success; on the other, they expected the dressmaker to cater to their every mood and wardrobe whim.

A woman’s relationship with her dressmaker was very personal. The dressmaker knew her physical measurements, her tastes in clothing, her social schedule and obligations, her financial circumstances, a bit about her family, and more besides. Women discussed their upcoming social calendars as they made decisions about new garments, eliciting the dressmaker’s advice about the suitability of a design or color or fabric for a particular event. They were gleeful about their own fashion triumphs and mournful about gowns they felt were less successful. In the process, they commented–not always charitably--on gowns worn by other women. The gossip flowed one way, from client to dressmaker. Only a foolish dressmaker would repeat gossip to her other clients, for she would surely lose customers by this. Dressmakers learned much of use from their clients’ chatty conversations, however.

Both Anna and Laura Tirocchi had contacts with their customers, but it seems to have been Anna who forged the deeper bonds with them. Laura had her own family. Anna had her customers and her workers, but the customers always came first in her life. She was devoted to them and did everything she could to accomodate them even when this was a strain on her business and family. They showed her respect by refering to her as her Madame Tirocchi.

As with any personal relationship, however, the dealings between Anna and her customers were not always smooth. Surviving letters, although far from a full record of the shop’s correspondence, reveal much about this aspect of her business. They show that the relationship was fraught with potential for sharp conflict but also graced in many cases with mutual satisfaction and deep gratification. In some cases there appears to be genuine friendship between Anna and a client, as in one letter in which a customer expresses concern for Anna’s health and recommends a remedy in great detail, pleading urgently with Anna to try it. However, the sisters seem to have been careful not to form social attachments to their clients. They knew those sorts of connections were unprofessional–and would be bad for business.

Satisfied customers wrote of the pleasure they took in their clothing. Some sent gifts, which Anna acknowledged in warm and often flattering thank-you notes. Even though clients often spoke of the praise their Tirocchi gowns brought, they rarely credited the skill of the Tirocchis directly for this success. One good client was unusual in claiming that such a triumph was "a good compliment to you," but she undercut the praise when she added that she had told her friends that "our Anna made it for me." That phrase must have stung the proud Anna Tirocchi, who was not "our Anna" to anyone and would not have appreciated being described as one would a servant.

If the Tirocchi clients unconsciously thought of the sisters in a subservient role, they nevertheless respected their judgment and relied on it for their own social and fashion successes. One client wrote to say she "would be guided by your judgment" and another wrote that she would "leave it to you to do what you think will be best and prettiest and most appropriate for me."

When the clients felt that judgment let them down, they were not shy about letting Anna know. "I am sorry to tell you that I am not quite satisfied with the front of my new gown," wrote one. Another customer, clearly distressed, wrote that her new dress was "impossible for me to wear it as it is" and then criticized it in great detail.

Even though the sisters and their workers literally worked overtime to deliver garments as they were needed or desired, and changed course at a moment’s notice to accommodate a client, the letters show that the Tirocchi customers were not always so considerate of the dressmakers. One customer wrote to demand two fittings in one day, thinking nothing of requiring the shop to drop other work in order to turn its primary attention to fitting, sewing, then fitting her again. This double standard seems to have been common. On the one hand, customers felt justified in making unreasonable demands on the shop, while on the other hand insisting that the Tirocchis respect their social and travel schedules.

The trickiest part of the relationship, of course, involved the exchange of money. Customers pushed the sisters to quote them fixed prices, then asked for extras and expected the price to remain the same. Clients often delayed payment or "forgot" to enclose checks or wrote to beg Anna’s indulgence because they had not received funds they had expected. On one occasion, as the Great Depression closed in, Anna wrote back that "it is not the time to joke any longer, as people need their money, and I must have mine so I can pay my bills." The clients seemed to think that their "friend" Anna would understand whatever circumstance delayed their payment. They chose not to understand that she was in business and relied on their payments.

Friendly relations also lulled some women into thinking that their abrupt cancellation of orders, or refusal of completed garments, would be tolerated by the Tirocchis. The cancellations were costly, the sisters rarely could find another customer for a cancelled gown. They tolerated these demands in order to keep valued clients. A customer stuck with her dressmaker because she felt comfortable. A dressmaker stuck with her client because she had to.

[ printable version ]

  The Family
  The Business
  The Clients
      Valued Clients
      Social Life & Wardrobe
      Relationship to Anna
      Changing Clientele
  The Workers




A collection of letters to and from the clients informed the researchers about the complex relationships Madame Tirocchi had with her customers.