Line, Color, Detail, Distinction, Individuality:
A. & L. Tirocchi, Providence Dressmakers


The success of the A. & L. Tirocchi shop was due not only to Anna's training and experience, but also to her commitment to her profession, which extended to the exclusion of marriage. Research on dressmakers and milliners from nineteenth-century Boston indicates that the trade was dominated by maiden ladies who had mastered their craft through years of dedication.(3) The situation of Anna's sister Laura is a case in point. Laura had followed Anna into the business and, according to Primrose Tirocchi, also had learned her craft in Italy. Laura's son, Dr. Louis J. Cella, Jr., described his mother Laura's role in the household as a difficult one, for her marital responsibilities often conflicted with those of the business. Her loyalties to her husband and sister were often at odds, and Anna's demands on her sister's time eventually resulted in a household divided between male and female spheres. After Anna's death in 1947, Laura and her husband reestablished a closer relationship. Dr. Cella, Jr., recalled that his mother gradually replaced the many pictures of his aunt on display at 514 Broadway with those of his father.

Marriage was not an issue when A. & L. Tirocchi opened at the Butler Exchange. Anna was about thirty-seven years old and had more than twenty years of experience in the dressmaking business. Laura was thirteen years younger and as yet unmarried. The work experience of both sisters and their training in Italy, with its reputation for craftsmanship of "quality and distinction," would have given A. & L. Tirocchi the advantage of a certain "chic appeal" in acquiring the high-end clientele Anna sought.(4) Aside from the focus on fine work, the dressmaking skills Anna and Laura had been taught in Italy were not dissimilar to those practiced throughout the rest of Europe and the United States at the end of the nineteenth century.

About fifty percent of the sisters' business was work for clients who desired that their clothes be altered, made over, repaired, cleaned, and pressed. The remaining fifty percent involved creating garments with fabric and ideas provided by the client or inspired by French styles. This tradition emerged in France during the eighteenth century at a time when dressmakers, unlike today's designers or couturiers, were considered to be craftspeople, not style makers. Fashion, until the middle of the nineteenth century, was measured by the choice of textiles and trims used to make up a garment. This was the province of the mercer, or his female counterpart, the marchande des modes, the purveyors of fashionable fabrics and trims from which clothing was made. The mercer's establishment was the first stop for the well dressed. There, one could discuss and examine the latest materials, which would then be taken to the dressmaker or tailor, who made the garments in consultation with the client. The cut or style of the dress was less important then, as it varied little from season to season. By the mid-nineteenth century, the mercer had lost his dominance, and women began to look to the rising star of French fashion: the couturier. The couturier combined the work of the mercer with that of the dressmaker, offering original designs along with the fabrics and trims from which the garments would be custom-made for the client.

Englishman Charles Frederick Worth is considered to be the first great couturier of Paris, where in 1858 he opened Worth et Bobergh with Swedish partner Otto Gustav Bobergh. Worth's timing was superb, as the debut of the business coincided with the establishment of Napoleon III's Second Empire and the creation of a fashionable court styled after that of Napoleon I and presided over by the Empress Eugenie. Within a decade, Worth was designing for the Empress and the other women at court. Unlike dressmakers and tailors before him, he did not create garments in consultation with his clients. Worth considered himself an artist: he designed new styles of dress, which he promoted to his customers. Instead of working with his clients, he dictated to them, originating "couture" and placing it atop the fashion pyramid.



printer version
(will open in
new window)


< back


continue >