In 1923, The New York Times reported on the decline of the
dressmaking business brought about by the increasing popularity
of women's ready-to-wear. The reporter interviewed the executive
chairman of the Associated Dress Industries of America, who spelled
out the change in women's buying habits. According to him, it was
no wonder that women faced with the need to acquire fabrics, trims,
and notions used in making a garment; to find the time to work out
the design of the garment with the dressmaker; to schedule several
fittings and alterations; and finally to end up with a garment that
"just screams 'home-made,' and does not bear that chic, natty air
of a garment designed, cut, and tailored by experienced craftsmen
and artists," would prefer shopping for a ready-made garment.
A woman buying a ready-made dress would have hundreds of garments
to select from, in a variety of colors and sizes. She could try
the garment on before committing to it, and there was no waiting
or delay. It was "ready-to-wear."
At the turn of the twentieth century, advances in transportation,
manufacturing technology, and communications made it possible to
establish department stores that sold large quantities of a number
of different items. Better manufacturing led to standardized production,
thus lowering the cost of goods. Faster transportation allowed merchants
to receive their inventory more quickly and frequently. The telephone
enabled merchants to place their orders without delay, thus allowing
them to control their inventory levels closelya factor that
was critical to holding down costs. Their reliance on new technologies
let department store owners offer consumers more choices at affordable
new department stores wanted the business of the general consumer,
but they also catered to women of wealth by offering high-quality
and high-fashion dresses in lavish corners of the store that echoed
the homes and clubs to which these women were accustomed. Small
specialty shops arose to attract the same clientele. Both types
of establishments offered alteration services and some custom dressmaking
to meet customers' demands, but neither could offer the craftsmanship
the Tirocchis could.
Anna Tirocchi had never aspired to serve the general public. Indeed,
according to her niece Primrose, she turned away potential customers
who "did not appreciate what she was doing." Nevertheless, she was
alarmed when she realized that the new department and specialty
retail stores were enticing her clientele.
The shop records reveal that in the fall of 1923, Anna Tirocchi
made a critical business decision and began to offer her clients
a wide range of ready-made garments and accessories, while continuing
to provide traditional dressmaking services. On occasion, clients
requested that a ready-made garment be copied. It is likely that
many of Anna's older clients would have eased into the ready-to-wear
trend in this way, having been accustomed to having more creative
input in the choice of fabric, trimmings, and cut.
In shifting her business from pure custom dressmaking to a mix
of custom and upscale ready-to-wear, Madame Tirocchi saved the shop.
Her business flourished, in fact. By 1927, customer billings were
triple what they had been in 1923, going from $22,706 to $62,221.
The shop also continued to be a full-service operation, providing
alterations, repairs, and make-overs and cleaning and pressing complicated
This worked for a decade. By 1933, however, A. & L. Tirocchi
was suffering. The Stock Market Crash of 1929 and subsequent Great
Depression began to take its toll on the clothing budgets of the
shop's customers. In reduced circumstances, clients found their
dollars would go farther in department stores. Retail advertising
had convinced a new generation that fashionable ready-to-wear could
be found in the stores, and the daughters of Madame Tirocchi's staunchest
clients found more choices there than in what must have seemed to
them the outdated shop of their mothers.
Anna and Laura had successfully fended off the tides of change
with imagination and determination, but they were unable to buck
economic, generational, and retailing trends over the long term.
In the end, the department stores, with their ready-made wares,
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