Clients and Craftswomen: The Pursuit of Elegance


Changes in retailing as well as manufacturing and fashion were also undercutting the position of the custom dressmaker. Department stores [fig. 36] and small specialty shops catered to the wealthy by offering high-quality and high-fashion clothing in lavish settings that echoed the homes and clubs to which these women were accustomed. Department stores such as the Shepard Company and the Outlet Company in downtown Providence produced the illusion of democracy by opening their stores to shoppers who were "just looking," by charging fixed prices rather than bargaining with customers, and by offering a broad range of clothing and household goods in price-segregated departments. In fact, however, all shoppers were emphatically not seen as equal by the merchants who ran these enormous stores. They sought most eagerly the same customers who frequented the Tirocchi establishment: those with substantial disposable income that allowed them to purchase more lavish wardrobes than the working-class majority, who could only afford an occasional extravagance. For their wealthiest customers, department stores reserved luxurious accommodations on the premises and offered a wide range of special services. Small department stores - for example, Gladding's in downtown Providence - and specialty shops offering similar high-end merchandise competed for elite customers' dollars. More frankly exclusive than large department stores, these businesses also used lavish décor and personal service to attract wealthy clients who would return again and again. Although both types of stores primarily sold ready-made clothing, they offered alteration services and some custom tailoring to meet the demands of well-to-do clients.(2)

Shops such as A. & L. Tirocchi faced stiff competition. The new ways of making and selling apparel offered an approximation of the exclusivity, fashion, and precise fit that had long been the dressmaker's stock-in-trade. To a large extent, Anna and Laura fought fire with fire, albeit with their own special flair. The Tirocchi sisters moved from a downtown office building to a substantial mansion on fashionable Broadway and fitted it out as luxuriously as their most pretentious competitors. Dr. Louis J. Cella, Jr., son of Laura Tirocchi, remembered that the first-floor parlor, which customers passed on their way to the showroom in the second-floor billiard room, featured an elaborate round three-person Victorian seat centered under an imposing chandelier. In the billiard room, customers could choose their fabrics from artfully draped arrays. Although the Broadway mansion housed both manufacturing and sales, the spaces devoted to making the garments were hidden away on the third floor. Stuart Blumin pointed to this separation between the venues of consumption and production as a mark of developing middle-class life in the nineteenth century, an economic and social experience limited to a minority of the population until World War II.(3) As shopping became more of a mass experience conducted in a very public setting, the Tirocchis offered personal attention and privacy. Tirocchi service was extremely individualized. Each garment could be made from a customer's fabric of choice and tailored to her figure and specifications. Although a customer might be just as warmly received and well known at an exclusive ready-to-wear shop, it was only at 514 Broadway that her exact dimensions were embodied in two sets of measurements on a dress form, one for her torso and another for her arm. A woman went to the Tirocchis not to be dazzled by the huge array of goods and spectacular, brightly-lit displays that characterized the downtown shopping district, nor to rendezvous with friends as they might at the Shepard Company's tearoom. The wealthy client sought out the Tirocchis for an experience of quiet elegance, heavily insulated from the public world of commerce.



printer version
(will open in
new window)


< back


continue >