Introduction - A. & L. Tirocchi: A Time Capsule Discovered

Susan Hay
Curator of Costume and Textiles
Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design

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"My dress made a great hit - and one lady said 'Oh - that's Paris, all right,'"wrote Lucy Wall to Anna Tirocchi [fig. 1] around 1920. "I said 'Our Anna made it for me.' It made a great sensation and I love it myself."(1)

The writer of the letter was Mrs. Ashbel T. Wall [fig. 2], who lived in a large mansion on George Street across from the pastoral green of Brown University on Providence's historic East Side [fig. 3]. The sensational dress in question was possibly the "black silver pocadots evening gown"trimmed with silver ribbon, half-ball jet for the neck, and steel tassels for the back; or the black and gold brocaded evening gown with jet, two dress ornaments for the shoulders, and fringe front and back; both of which she had ordered from the dressmaking shop of the Tirocchi sisters in 1920 and which she had worn during the winter social season.

The recipient of this letter was Miss Anna Tirocchi - Madam Tirocchi, as she was called - proprietress, with her sister Laura Tirocchi Cella [fig. 4], of A. &L. Tirocchi. Many fashionable women besides Mrs. Wall came to order their exclusive clothing from this Providence establishment, located in an elaborate Victorian Italianate house on fashionable Broadway [frontispiece]. A. &L. Tirocchi operated there between 1915 and 1947, catering to wealthy clients, many of whom, like Lucy Wall, were wives and daughters of newly successful industrialists from Providence, Rhode Island, and Fall River, Massachusetts. This shop and its unusual owners bridged three socio-cultural groups: their employees (from southern Italy), themselves (from near Rome), and their powerful and wealthy clients, such as Mrs. Wall, whose husband ran a company that manufactured gold and silver plate for Providence's burgeoning jewelry industry.

This book and the exhibition it accompanies are based on a unique collection in the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design (hereafter referred to as RISD), of early twentieth-century textiles and garments selected from the Tirocchi shop, along with all of the shop's records. When Anna Tirocchi died in 1947, Laura Tirocchi Cella wrapped everything in tissue paper and carefully put it all away, together with the business papers. These were not to be disturbed until 1989, when curators from the RISD Museum were invited by Laura's son, Dr. Louis J. Cella, Jr., inheritor of the house, to make their choice of objects for the Museum.

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.

The shop of Anna and Laura Tirocchi was located on the second and third floors of an historic 1860s mansion at 514 Broadway, on the edge of Providence's thriving Italian neighborhood on Federal Hill. The house also served as the office of Laura Tirocchi's husband, Dr. Louis J. Cella, an American-born physician. The third floor of the house served as the workshop, where "the girls,"as they were called, fabricated, decorated, beaded, altered, and tailored clothing to the desires of the clientele. The essay by Pamela Parmal, "Line, Color, Detail, Distinction, Individuality: A. &L. Tirocchi, Providence Dressmakers"(chapter one of this book), explores the operations of the shop itself as clients came and went, studied the design books, and, with the valued advice of Anna and Laura Tirocchi, decided on the fashionable Paris clothes that they would order.

The women who were clients of the shop are known not only from the shop's written records enumerating the textiles and garments they used and preferred, sometimes over the span of twenty years, but also from their letters to Anna, photographs they sent to the Tirocchi sisters, and newspaper clippings that the Tirocchi sisters carefully saved in boxes. Then, as now, women were important consumers. This economic role has often been ignored or belittled, along with fashion itself, as feminine frivolity. In point of fact, women's decisions about their clothing and personal appearance document the culture of early twentieth-century America, including the female role of social arbiter, the emergence of women as community leaders in their own right, and their participation in the working world. The city of Providence, rich in traditional aspects of American culture, presented many opportunities for women of the new elite to become involved in the community through institutions such as the Providence Art Club, the Rhode Island Historical Society, and Rhode Island School of Design and its Museum of Art. RISD was itself founded by women of the Metcalf family, whose descendents still maintain a leadership role in all of these institutions. At least one member of the Metcalf family was a Tirocchi client. So were Mrs. Stuart (Martha L.) Aldrich and her daughter Louise, respectively the daughter-in-law and granddaughter of U.S. Senator Nelson Aldrich, sometimes referred to in his heyday at the turn of the century as "the Boss of the Senate."Louise, who became Mrs. Wallace Hoge in a Tirocchi wedding gown in 1931 [fig. 6], was a lifelong friend and substantial donor to the RISD Museum before her death in 1996.

All three daughters of Republican U.S. Senator LeBaron B. Colt - brother of Colonel Samuel Colt, owner of the vastly successful United States Rubber Company - were Tirocchi clients. A lawyer and jurist, LeBaron Colt served in the Rhode Island legislature from 1879 to 1881 and was elected to the United States Senate in 1913, two years after Nelson Aldrich resigned his Senate seat. LeBaron Colt's eldest daughter, Theodora, arrived on the Tirocchis' doorstep in June 1926, shortly after her divorce from Edwin A. Barrows of Providence, the president of Narragansett Electric Lighting Company. A year later, her youngest sister Elizabeth followed Theodora to her dressmakers' showroom. In 1929, the middle sister, Mary, wife of insurance tycoon Harold J. Gross of Providence, first appeared in the Tirocchi records.

Harriet Sprague Watson Lewis [fig. 7], a Tirocchi client in the late 1920s at the same time as the Colt sisters, kept a lifelong diary that happily allows a glimpse into the lives of these women and suggests why they purchased so many outfits from the Tirocchi shop.(2) Fifty-two years of age in 1926, Mrs. Lewis and her husband Jack, a successful shoe manufacturer, were members of a particular Providence social set made up of old families and newly wealthy industrialists. Harriet Lewis had been a friend of Theodora Colt since before her marriage, and Mary Colt Gross was among the women Harriet regularly met for "luncheon."According to Harriet's diary and to her scrapbook containing newspaper clippings of social events such as the "Welsh rarebit"parties surrounding her marriage in 1898, Harriet was also a friend of Abby Aldrich. Abby, in 1898, was being courted by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., then a student at Brown University (they were married in 1901). Abby's sister Lucy Truman Aldrich was also a friend. Lucy would later collect a superb group of Asian textiles, many of which she donated to RISD's Museum during her lifetime, with more entering the Museum holdings at her death. Both Abby and Lucy were sisters-in-law of the aforementioned Mrs. Stuart Aldrich, the wife of their youngest brother and one of the most faithful Tirocchi clients.

Over the years, Harriet Sprague Watson Lewis mentions at least ten women who were Tirocchi clients, including Helen Merriman (listed as Mrs. Bruce Merriman in the Tirocchi records), Ella Fielding-Jones, Mrs. Harry Horton, Mrs. Frank D. Lisle, Mrs. Henry Lampher, Ann Kilvert (who married Howard Merriman in a Tirocchi wedding gown in 1931), and even one of the Daley sisters - Anna and Mary, nurses dressed by the Tirocchis - who attended Harriet Lewis after her husband died suddenly in 1930. Annie Watson Fletcher, Harriet's sister and the wife of Charles H. Fletcher, was a customer in the late 1920s. Isabel Watson, wife of Harriet's brother Byron S. Watson, had been patronizing the Tirocchi shop since 1918 at least and was one of the most fashionable clients until Anna Tirocchi became too ill to work in the early 1940s.

Harriet Sprague Watson Lewis lived in a whirlwind of social activity. In 1926, when she started coming to the Tirocchi shop, Harriet and Jack Lewis began the year with the Aldrich's dance at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Providence. Every evening in early January a dinner party was scheduled at a home of one of their friends. Later in the winter season, there were dinner dances, birthday parties, luncheons at the Providence Art Club, Bridge Club and Junior League meetings, theater parties, movie-goings, friends to dinner, and evenings of poker and "auction"(bridge). All required particular clothing. Harriet Lewis's favorite charity was the Providence Lying-In Hospital, which she served as a Board member through many hours of meetings yearly. For each she would have worn a different "good"outfit. Often in March or April, the Lewises as a couple or Harriet alone would travel to Europe (in 1926 she went with friends to Spain, Monte Carlo, and Cannes) or south to the Caribbean: special traveling clothes were considered necessary. Summers were spent at the Lewis farm in Narragansett, where the social calendar continued full tilt with dinners and poker parties. The house was always full of people, either friends of the Lewises or of their three boys, then in their teens and twenties. It was a rare evening when there was quiet time at home together for the Lewis family.

This life was shared by a number of Tirocchi clients, many of whom are mentioned in Harriet Lewis's diary as participants in these same events. The 1920 census reveals that these women, friends and members of a very social coterie, were East Side neighbors as well. Harriet Lewis lived at 2 Benevolent Street; her sister-in-law Isabel Watson resided at number 20. Backing up to these houses was "Clients' Row"on George Street, where, in large mansions [figs. 8-9] opposite the entrance to the main green at Brown University, lived Lucy Wall, Edna Miller, and May Nicholson. May was the wife of Samuel Mowry Nicholson, President of Nicholson File, one of the largest companies in Rhode Island and one of the most successful machine toolmakers in the country. One block away across the Brown green on Waterman Street was the Providence residence of Senator LeBaron Colt, father of Theodora Colt Barrows, Mary Colt Gross, and Elizabeth Colt Anthony.

The exquisite textiles and clothing found in the Tirocchi shop are examples of what these women, who wielded considerable social and financial power, thought appropriate for their own active lives and circumstances. The profusion of client ledgers, correspondence, bills, clippings, and photographs reveal vital women with lives rich in social contacts and artistic interests who also had the time, motivation, and opportunity to move into active roles in their communities, all the while managing their elaborate homes, staffs of servants, and complicated household routines.

Many details relating to the rites of passage and pursuits of these women are illuminated by the records and by the garments made in the Tirocchi shop for confirmations, weddings, and other festivities. For example, shop records list the garments sewn for brides and their wedding parties: in the case of Ann Kilvert for her marriage to Howard Richmond Merriman in 1931, the purchase of an imported gown by the fashionable English designer Lucile and its alteration with long train and "special made sleeves by Mr. John's in N.Y."at a cost of $288. The Tirocchi Archive also includes photographs and clippings of this wedding party. Ann Kilvert Merriman (now deceased) gave the still-cherished wedding dress to the Museum when the Tirocchi shop came to light.

Susan Porter Benson's essay (chapter two), "Clients and Craftswomen: The Pursuit of Elegance,"discusses the relationship between the workers in the shop, many of whom were Italian or of Italian descent, and the wealthy American-born clients for whom they performed the delicate work of sewing, embroidery, and beadwork. Providence city records show that employees of A. &L. Tirocchi were women from thriving Italian American families. Many came to the shop already in command of considerable needle skills. Annual city directories, marriage and death records, and the 1920 federal census reveal that at least some (and probably most) of the families of the women who worked in the Tirocchi shop had come to Providence at least ten years previously and already were entrepreneurs and homeowners, both traditional goals of Italian immigrants.(3) Some were related to the Tirocchi sisters, such as Emily Valcarenghi Martinelli, who worked in the shop at various times throughout its existence and who was the daughter of Anna and Laura's sister, Eugenia Tirocchi Valcarenghi.

Workers in the shop drew weekly wages, and Anna and Laura gave close attention to the hours and productivity of their employees, as detailed by the pay books.(4) For the young Italian American workers in the Tirocchi shop, this was still appropriate "women's work," not the kind of work in a factory setting that other Italian women in Rhode Island were entering.(5 )The sewing rooms in the Tirocchi house were safe areas where women were sheltered from exploitation and bad behavior and were under the supervision of two female members of their own community. Interviews recorded with surviving workers indicate that, in the employees' minds, the Tirocchi establishment was far from a sweatshop, in contrast to the situations of many workers in the garment industry at that time, or indeed in the early twenty-first century. Those interviewed regarded it as a family, and they loved the beautiful fabrics with which they worked. Their reactions to the sometimes peremptory clientele were another story.

When the Tirocchi sisters first arrived in Providence, they settled into a neighborhood in the Silver Lake section, composed of interrelated families mostly from southern Italy. Much of the shop's eventual work force also lived in Silver Lake and had themselves adjusted from the economy and environment of a traditional Italian society to that of modern America. In this book's third chapter, "Strategies for Success: The Tirocchis, Immigration, and the Italian American Experience," John Briggs recounts the story of the Tirocchi family's arrival in America as part of a chain migration partially financed by several of the earliest immigrants, who earned enough to summon their families by laying railroad track in northern New England and Canada or by working as laborers in Providence, as documented by personal papers, including correspondence with family members in Italy; family photographs; and the oral histories of surviving family members.

Anna and Laura Tirocchi at first glance seem unlikely candidates for fashion advisers to very wealthy, very social, and very American clients. The sisters were born before 1890 in Guarcino, Italy, a tiny town in the hills southeast of Rome. In the early years of this century, Guarcino was still isolated from the outside world. Only when the sisters revisited the town in the 1930s did they find a narrow-gauge railway connecting the town to the provincial capital of Frosinone.(6) According to family legend, the sisters were taught the dressmaking trade in Rome before coming to the United States and settling in Providence. Their first shop was located in the Butler Exchange building on Westminster Street, where they employed eleven young women between ca. 1911 and 1915. In 1915, Laura Tirocchi married. In the same year, Anna purchased the house on Broadway and opened the shop on its second floor. By this time, the sisters had already developed their wealthy clientele.

Tirocchi customers demanded copies of couture clothing from Paul Poiret, Lucien Lelong, Jeanne Paquin, Redfern, and other Parisian couturiers. In the first years after the business was moved to Broadway, these garments continued to be constructed on the premises by Anna, Laura, and their workers, using fabric purchased in New York. Made-to-order dresses, coats, blouses, and petticoats were patterned on sketches of French designs published in magazines such as Harper's Bazaar or were taken from design books distributed by the fabric suppliers. With the advent of ready-to-wear clothing in the early 1920s, the shop underwent a thorough transformation. By 1926, the sisters were buying garments directly from the Parisian ateliers of Poiret, Lelong, and others, then altering them for customers or selling them directly, while also purchasing from suppliers in New York many ready-made models based on Paris designs. Madelyn Shaw documents in chapter four the American fashion scene, supplying the context within which the sisters carried on their trade.

What was the fascination that French couture held for American women? Part of it was the fantasy of Paris, the cultural capital of Europe, the apex of luxury, art, and fine living, home to cordon bleu cuisine, promenades in the Bois de Boulogne, fine architecture and grand boulevards, the newly constructed Opera, and the venerable Comedie Française and Musee du Louvre. From the early nineteenth century, magazines, newspapers, and novels were more and more inclined to present Paris as the source of all that was best in women's fashion, that exquisite and frivolous art of decoration used not only to make women attractive and seductive, but also, as Anne Hollander has pointed out, to enhance their roles as transmitters of tradition, imagination, and emotion.(7)

When Charles Frederick Worth descended on Paris from London in the 1850s, he was quick to take advantage of this reputation. Building on the idea that Paris fashion was superior, he declared himself to be the most talented of its dressmakers. With a flair for publicity and the ego of an artist who brooked no disagreement, Worth added to the Paris mystique the certainty that the name of the designer of a woman's toilette was all-important to her image and allure. American women such as Mrs. Potter Palmer, Edith Wharton, and Isabella Stewart Gardner became Worth's clients, bringing Paris fashion home to America and expanding its reputation still further.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Paris had also garnered a reputation as the capital of modernity with its new city plan of wide avenues according to Baron Haussmann and its profusion of recently constructed beaux-arts buildings. In the American mind, Paris was the site where the most rich and well-born from all over the world came to enjoy the high life, an experience that only Paris could provide in full measure. American dancer Isadora Duncan, welcomed into the salons of the intellectual and artistic elite after she arrived in Paris at the turn of the century, thought that "Paris...stands in our world, for our times, for what Athens was in the epoch of the glory of 'ancient Greece.'"(8) Even during the First World War, Americans still thought of Paris as "the permanent rendez-vous of aristocracy - an aristocracy formed of the diplomates [sic] of all the great Empires, historical families, renowned and glorious intellects, celebrated beauties, illustrious artists, eloquent ministers - born in every part of the world,"even as the elite were fleeing to Deauville and Biarritz.(9)

Paris had another aspect: a slightly sinister, even shocking cast, with its demimondaines luxuriously dressed by Worth, Jacques Doucet, Paul Poiret, and Jeanne Paquin. Actresses like Sarah Bernhardt and Rejane were veritable advertisements for the fashions created by these designers, and through photographs, Americans followed their visits, along with those of the titled and wealthy, to the races at Longchamps or to the Paris Opera.

The cultural sophistication and piquant worldliness of Paris in the early part of the century appealed to the American woman in a way that New York or London could not. Ordering and wearing a dress from Paris meant that a woman could have as her own a small bit of the unique life of the world's most distinguished elite in the world's most exciting city. In America, Paris fashion ensured that others would recognize a woman's status as a cultivated and wealthy person, perhaps able to travel to Paris, but certainly able to afford the best that her own locale had to offer. For the Tirocchi clientele - active and intelligent wives and daughters of wealthy industrialists in a thriving city of long history and old money - nothing short of Paris couture would do.

In many ways, the fantasy of Paris was true. Paris was modern. It was a time of cultural ferment in Europe and particularly in Paris, which was giving birth to recognizably twentieth-century visual and performing arts and literature. The world of fashion and textiles was closely connected with these developments. As the French recognized, "The decorative and industrial arts are, like all the forms of art, an expression of life: they evolve from era to era with the needs, moral or material, to which they must respond."(10)

Paris fashion was artistic. The designers and couturiers of the early years of the twentieth century were part of the art world. They moved in "artistic circles."Even though they did not socialize with their elite clients, who regarded them as mere dressmakers, they shared their clients' tastes for theater and gallery, lavish entertaining, and elegant display. They sent models, dressed in their very latest creations, to Longchamps and the Bois de Boulogne, where they could be sure that the elite would see them. They knew well, traveled, and socialized with artists of every stripe, from fauvist painters to avant-garde writers. They collected art and collaborated with artists in theater and interior-design projects. They belonged to the same organizations. Interconnections between painters, decorative artists, and couturiers were so common as to be institutionalized: for example, in the Societe des Artistes Decorateurs, which promoted French design and broached the idea for the famous Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes of 1925, the source for the term "Art Deco."

The clothing and textiles found in the Tirocchi shop point directly to these connections. In this book's fifth and sixth chapters, Susan Hay discusses how the developing aesthetic of modernism may be followed in the progression of fashion design. Heavily corseted s-curved dresses that show an art-nouveau interpretation of the female silhouette at the beginning of the century had given way to the first simplified, uncorseted, tubular silhouettes before the Tirocchi shop opened on Broadway. The shop contained many of the newly fashionable chemises, which dominated in the 1920s, to be followed by the streamlined, body-hugging dresses

of the 1930s. The luxurious textiles used by the Tirocchis also reflected the adoption of an international modernist aesthetic influenced by cubism, the German and Austrian werkbund movements, the "moderne" style, and its 1930s outgrowth, "machine-age"design, a cultural progression that was appearing worldwide, but especially in Paris.

Thanks to Anna and Laura Tirocchi's ability to adapt to changing circumstances in the fashion world and to interpret Paris fashion artistically for their American clientele, they continued to maintain their business at a time when their craft was under assault from all sides. "That's Paris,"said Lucy Wall's friend of Lucy's garment, and many others must have agreed. The Tirocchi sisters were able to wrest their fashionable customers from other dressmakers in Providence, despite speaking almost no English at first and having few contacts among the wealthy. Their success may be attributed to their sewing skills, their creative talents, and their great fortitude in the face of overwhelming challenges. The sisters had cachet as Italians, trained, as they were said to have been, in the salons of Rome, and perhaps their charming accents actually helped, rather than hindered, their success. Judging from their long tenure at 514 Broadway and the enduring loyalty of their most faithful clients, their success was great, perhaps as great as any dressmaking establishment of their era. Among Italian immigrant women, they were very unusual indeed. The Tirocchi shop is an important historical record of aspiring women, their work, and their times.




Lucy Wall to Anna Tirocchi, n.d.

Harriet Sprague Watson Lewis diary, 1926; collection of the Rhode Island Historical Society, Providence.

Virginia Yans-McLaughlin, Family and Community: Italian Immigrants in Buffalo, 1880-1930. Ithaca: 1997, pp. 44-47.

Shop pay books; Tirocchi Archive.

Judith E. Smith, Family Connections: A History of Italian and Jewish Immigrant Lives in Providence, Rhode Island 1900- 1940. Albany: 1985, p. 10.

Karl Baedeker, Central Italy and Rome: Handbook for Travellers. Leipzig, London, New York: 1909, frontispiece; and Rome and Central Italy: Handbook for Travellers. Leipzig, London, New York: 1930, pp. 525, 530.

Anne Hollander, Sex and Suits. New York: 1994, p. 81.

Isadora Duncan, My Life. New York: 1927, p. 87.

The 1915 Mode as Shown by Paris. Panama Pacific International Exhibition. New York: 1915.

"Evolution of decorative and industrial art,"in Encyclopedie des arts decoratifs et industriels modernes au XXième siècle, en douze volumes, vol. 1. New York: 1977 (reprint), p. 9.