INTRODUCTION - A. & L. Tirocchi: A Timecapsule Discovered


When RISD's Susan Hay and Pamela Parmal, curators of costume and textiles, entered the house at 514 Broadway, they stepped back into the world of the 1920s and 1930s. There, preserved as in a life-size time capsule, were textiles and garments from every period of the shop's operation [fig. 5], sewing machines and tools, notions and trims, bottles of perfume, imported linens, costume accessories, and an encyclopedic collection of early twentieth-century lace, both hand- and machine-made. Eighteen cubic feet of archival materials were also identified: business correspondence, business papers, ledgers, daybooks, check registers, employee time books, client books and bills, suppliers' bills and receipts, programs from couture showings at Paul Poiret and Lucien Lelong in Paris during the 1920s, photographs, and personal correspondence. The Museum accessioned more than three hundred garments and textiles and a few pieces of the ornate furniture that served to show off the fine textiles. At the curators' suggestion, Dr. Cella, Jr., gave about two thousand additional objects (including one-yard lengths of all the fabrics and samples of all the trims) to the University of Rhode Island for the collection of the Department of Textiles, Fashion Merchandising, and Design. In order to make a permanent record of the shop and its operations, the Museum curators, with the assistance of students and staff from RISD and the University of Rhode Island, inventoried everything in the shop and transferred the information to various data bases (see "Note on the A. &L. Tirocchi Archive, Collection, and Catalogue,"p. 23).

Such complete documentation of an historical dressmaking business exists nowhere else in the United States. Individual dressmakers are known from many cities, but other museums and archives do not contain similar riches of original source material. The Tirocchi collection is an unparalleled resource for understanding many wide-ranging historical issues, including Italian immigration, women as workers and consumers, and the transition from hand production of garments to ready-to-wear clothing. Because both clientele and workers are identified, the collection also illuminates the lives of actual individuals in history, people who were experiencing the impact of many social changes and responding to them in diverse ways. These choices are expressed in decisions about the production and appearance of clothing. The business records describe the texture of the daily lives of Italian immigrant women, a segment of the population that is barely recorded elsewhere, and thus provide an unusual opportunity to show the particular way in which Italian American women integrated their work in the Tirocchi shop into their lives.

As a study in material culture, the profusion of textiles, articles of clothing, and accessories - many purchased by the Tirocchis in Paris or made by them from Paris designs and fine French fabrics imported by New York suppliers - illustrates the close connection between fashion and art in the early twentieth century, when the birth of modernism spawned experimentation in all media and when artists approached dress as a decorative art form. Simply arranging the costumes and textiles by date makes clear the assimilation into design of abstraction, cubism, futurism, exoticism, and other trends in modern art as they were developing in the first decades of the twentieth century. By the 1920s, the American "machine age"was also influencing fashion. Many garments in the Tirocchi collection reflect the taste for streamlined purity of line and shiny materials that permeated all areas of design.




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