Line, Color, Detail, Distinction, Individuality: A. & L. Tirocchi, Providence Dres smakers
PAMELA A. PARMAL
In 1906, the Providence City Directory listed 890 dressmakers. By 1920, that number had decreased by half. Among those who continued to stay in business were Anna and Laura Tirocchi. The sisters' struggle to satisfy customers whose lifestyles were changing significantly during the early decades of the twentieth century is documented in the A. & L. Tirocchi Archive. The accelerating pace of life, due to improved transportation (automobiles, airplanes) and communication (telephone and radio); the increasing number of working women in a booming economy; and the growing availability of women's ready-to-wear were crucial factors to be taken into account. By 1911, when Anna and her younger sister Laura established their downtown Providence business [fig. 10], the descending spiral in the number of dressmakers had already begun; however, the sisters' skill, creativity, and adaptability gained them a large, loyal, and wealthy clientele that remained with them throughout the 1910s, 20s, and into the 30s.
When Anna and Laura Tirocchi opened their shop, Providence - and the entire nation - was enjoying a period of great prosperity. The city was still the United States' primary manufacturer of worsted textiles and the secondary maker of woolens,(1) despite the fact that its previous industrial base of cotton manufacturing had already begun to relocate in the South. Fruit of the Loom underwear and J. P. Coat's thread were manufactured in the Providence area, which was also home to Nicholson File Company; Brown &Sharpe Manufacturing Company, tool and die makers; American Screw Company; office suppliers Boston Wire Stitch Company and Loose Leaf Manufacturing Company; Gorham Manufacturing Company, silver makers; and an increasing number of costume jewelry firms and rubber manufacturers. The women who frequented Anna and Laura Tirocchi's business were the wives and daughters of company owners and executives. These women's attire was an indicator of their husbands' economic success.
Custom-made clothing was still the rule for women at a time when the ready-to-wear trade had already become established for men's and children's apparel. The proper fit over a tightly corseted body could only be achieved through the services of a dressmaker; likewise, the complex draping of fabric and the disposition of elaborate trims and ornaments considered necessary for female attire. The custom process also enabled the buyer to enjoy a level of creativity and the ability to express her individuality. Clients chose their own fabrics, trims, and ornaments and worked with their dressmakers to produce the one-of-a-kind garments that suited their tastes, figures, and budgets.
Anna Tirocchi was well trained in custom dressmaking, and, most likely, her sister Laura was also. According to family tradition, they worked in Rome for one of the dressmakers to Queen Margherita of Italy. Although the only evidence for this is oral family history (interviews with Dr. Louis J. Cella, Jr., and Primrose Tirocchi), Anna certainly seems to have been familiar with the demands of a wealthy and discriminating clientele. Upon coming to Providence, both Anna and Laura were employed for a short time in the shop of one of the city's leading seamstresses, Rose Carraer-Eastman.(2) According to niece Primrose Tirocchi, Anna arrived in the United States with the determination to cater to American women of high social standing. The client ledgers show that she achieved just that, although her Providence customers were members of a plutocracy rather than an aristocracy. Anna certainly was the prime mover behind the opening of the sisters' business.
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.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the dressmaking profession - and eventually the women's ready-to-wear trade - was almost completely dependent upon French couture. Most high-end dressmakers copied Paris designs, altering them to suit their clients. Anna and Laura Tirocchi were no different. They purchased many fashion magazines, including Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, and Les Creations Parisiennes. As early as 1917, Anna ordered from Haas Brothers (one of the New York importers/ready-to-wear manufacturers) a "model book" illustrating copies of Paris designs [fig. 11]. These were published each fall and spring by importers and department stores, among them B. Altman &Company. Anna and her clients often referred to such volumes for inspiration. The client day book for the years 1917 and 1918 records many transactions in which customers ordered garments inspired by designs from both magazines and model books. On November 22, 1917, Mrs. R. W. Blanding requested that Anna and Laura make over one of her gowns. The neckline was to be fashioned after an illustration of a Worth creation that appeared in the magazine Les elegances Parisiennes, (figs. 555 and 551 bis in the publication), while the back and front of the gown were to follow the design of a Bulloz garment (no. 91), illustrated in the model book of the New York manufacturer E. L. Brady Company.(5)
A. & L. Tirocchi stocked fabrics, trims, and notions, and if a woman so desired, she could take advantage of the fact that Anna would design original garments using them, just as a French couturier would do. In later years, also following the couturier's practice, every spring and fall Anna would invite her clients to visit the shop to view her current line. Two announcements of Anna's collections survive in the Tirocchi Archive. A handwritten note from the Butler Exchange years (around 1911 to 1915) emphasizes the Tirocchi offerings of fabric and trims:
Anna and Laura Tirocchi
Beg to advise you that they are in New York
selecting new Imported Materials and Trimmings
for the Spring Season
They cordially invite you to inspect
their new stock at their parlors
Butler Exchange, March 15th
By the fall of 1926, Anna was distributing printed announcements that advertised their fashions for the winter season. By this time she was using the name Di Renaissance for the shop, perhaps to add the cachet of Italian craftmanship, and listing herself as manager. In the announcement, she offers her clients "Line, Color, Detail, Distinction, Individuality," stressing the unique look and quality of garments made by a custom dressmaker [fig. 12]: "Distinction" and "Individuality" that could not be found in the mass-produced goods of a department store. Anna's emphasis on individual attention and service - the hallmark of a successful dressmaker - made her a leader in her chosen profession.
In 1915, after a few years in business, Anna and Laura's success gave them the wherewithal to move the business from its original location in the Butler Exchange (in downtown Providence, directly across the street from the historic Arcade) to their new home at 514 Broadway on Providence's West Side [see frontispiece]. The 1915 Providence City Directory shows that there were already eleven dressmakers and seven tailors on the street, with an even larger concentration of men's and ladies' tailors at work a few blocks south on Broad Street. The presence of dressmaking establishments in the area, along with the proximity of Broadway to downtown Providence and the fashionable East Side, where most of Anna and Laura's local clients lived, made the neighborhood a suitable place for the business. The Prentice mansion, bought in Anna's name, was one of the largest and most ornate on Broadway. The decision to move the business coincided with Laura's marriage to Dr. Louis J. Cella. On arriving in Providence, Anna and Laura had lived with their sister Eugenia Valcarenghi and her family on Pocasset Avenue in the Silver Lake area and then for a short time with their brother Frank's family at 39 Bradford Street on Federal Hill. Laura and Louis were married on June 30, 1915. Dr. Cella, Laura, and Anna moved into the Broadway address and set up a household that would accommodate under one roof Laura's responsibilities as a wife, dressmaker, and mother. In this domestic arrangement, the shop resembled those of other dressmakers at the turn of the century, most of whom worked out of their homes, thus saving time and money and allowing the women to remain on the site of family responsibilities.(6) Each of the eleven dressmakers located on Broadway was living at her business address, while four of the tailors lived elsewhere and three worked out of their homes.
The first floor at 514 Broadway housed Dr. Cella's medical offices and the formal family rooms, while the dressmaking business occupied all of the second floor and part of the third. The remainder of the third floor was set aside for the family living quarters. Upon entering the house, Anna's clients would be ushered past the formal parlor/music room and up a flight of stairs. The second floor - housing showroom, fitting rooms, office, and stock rooms - was the public face of the shop, where customers interacted with Anna, Laura, and, less often, their employees. Anna filled the showroom/billiard room with her precious silk velvets, brocaded lames, and laces [fig. 13]. The billiard table was often covered with artistically draped bolts of fabric for customers to admire. Husbands would also wait in this room and, according to Dr. Cella, Jr., would at times uncover the table and pass the time using it for its intended purpose. The two fitting rooms, called the "red" room and the "blue" room after the colors of the carpets [fig. 14], were more comfortably furnished than the billiard room and were probably where clients discussed their orders with Anna and/or had their fittings. The office and stock rooms occupied the back of the second floor. Anna employed a secretary/bookkeeper, who corresponded with suppliers and billed clients. It was also in the office that Anna would meet with the traveling salesmen, called "drummers," sent by the many New York importers and manufacturers from whom she purchased her stock. During the early years of the business, the drummers spread their textiles, laces, and trims on a large table in one corner of the office. Later, they tempted Anna and Laura with model dresses, ready-to-wear, and accessories. Dr. Cella, Jr., remembered hiding under this big oak table with its thick spiral legs during such visits and listening to his aunt and mother "Ooh" and "Aah" over the offerings. The remainder of the floor was used to house stock, with a few sewing machines located in one of the rooms to accomplish quick repairs.
The third floor of the house contained the workrooms and the family living quarters. Two rooms at the front were occupied by the shop [fig. 15]. A large closet off the larger of the two rooms served as storage for Anna's dress forms, sized to the most loyal customers. The workrooms were furnished with tables, one in the smaller room and three in the larger. A sizable table in the bigger room was used to lay out and cut fabric. A small chest/table placed at one end of the large table was heavily padded and used for ironing. In the middle of the chest/table sat a gas burner on which the irons were heated. Fine handwork was done in each room at a table under a window. A low cabinet with four large drawers occupied the space along the north wall of the large room. Anna stored bolts of fabric in these drawers - chiffons, georgettes, nets, laces, and crepes - and on top of the cabinet were placed on end the brocaded silks, velvets, and lames that were too wide to fit in the drawers and so were rolled on tubes. At night the rolls were covered to keep off the dust, but during day they must have created a luxurious atmosphere in which to work.
Between the years 1915 and 1931, Anna employed an average of twelve to sixteen "girls," as they referred to themselves. At peak times the girls would spread out through the entire third floor. Dr. Cella, Jr., remembered going into his bedroom on the third floor and finding someone sitting in front of his window sewing. The girls who worked in the shop were assigned tasks according to their abilities and experience. Those who had been there longest did the more complicated work, while the less skilled were accorded the simpler jobs. Mary Rosa Traverso worked for Anna as a sewer between 1932 and 1936. She executed relatively easy needlework such as basting and overcasting seams, stitchery that would not have been visible on the face of the finished garment. The more experienced girls would take on exacting tasks that probably included the pressing and preparation of delicate fabrics or those difficult to work with, such as chiffon and velvet; the actual sewing together of the garment; and decorative needlework. Traverso recalled that the complicated procedure of steaming velvet was done by the more experienced girls, whom she assisted. Mary Rosa would hold upside-down an iron covered with a damp cloth to create steam. The velvet would be held above it and the pile of the velvet carefully brushed down. Laura's role in the shop was similar to that of the other girls, according to Traverso, but Laura also joined Anna during fittings and participated in the design process. She appears to have been the more practical of the two sisters and provided commentary and suggestions relative to the appropriateness or flattering qualities of Anna's designs, according to Emily Valcarenghi Martinelli.
During its early years, the day-to-day business of A. & L. Tirocchi may be reconstructed fairly well through the customer ledgers and day books. The chart below shows the breakdown of the transaction types for the years 1915-24, based on the customer ledgers. The business of the shop was split evenly between repairs, alterations, and make-overs on the one hand and custom work on the other until 1924, when Anna began to sell ready-to-wear. Unfortunately, the records are not always detailed enough to distinguish between the sale of a custom- or ready-made garment after 1924.
The emphasis on restyling and altering older apparel was typical of the period prior to the introduction of women's mass-market ready-to-wear. Custom-made clothing was expensive in terms of both money and time. The client needed to search out fabrics and trims; decide on the desired style; and be available for fittings. Garments were often restyled and altered to keep up with fashion and to prolong their useful life.
INSERT CHART of business transactions here
Anna and Laura's clients placed orders for evening, afternoon, and morning dresses, along with simpler dresses that were less occasion-specific. Suits were also commissioned, although not as often, since they were usually made by ladies' tailors, many of whom worked a few blocks away on Broad Street and in downtown Providence. Women would have their blouses, known as "waists," made by Anna and Laura. The shop's day books and correspondence indicate that most of the orders for custom garments were collaborations between Anna and her clients. A customer would choose the fabrics and trims from which the dresses would be made and discuss the style with Anna. In a letter dated December 30, 1919, Mrs. E. G. Butler of Rockville, Connecticut, wrote to Anna regarding an order for a coat and dress. The letter is fairly detailed with regard to the style of the coat, and Mrs. Butler is quite clear about what she wants it to look like. "I would like more of a dolman than a coat, but want more of a sleeve than many of them have. I would like a nice cloth, perhaps Duvetyn or something similar in a taupe shade. Of course, it would have to be made warm with wool padding or anything you thought best." In her letter she also requests Anna to make a dress for her, but is less certain about its style. In the end she decides that she will wait to see Anna so that they may discuss it together.
Mrs. Butler's letter helps to illuminate the process by which dresses were created during the early twentieth century. In the second paragraph, she refers to the completion of the lining of the dress by the next time she will visit. Until the early 1920s, the lining of the garment was the foundation on which the dress was built. Custom dressmakers, like Anna, carefully fitted the linings to their customer's measurements using dress forms padded out to the client's size. The lining was cut, most often by Anna, and the pieces pinned to the form and basted together. The client would then try on the lining to make sure the fit was proper. When this was achieved, the more costly satin or velvet fabric would be draped to form the skirt, and the bodice created using net, lace, and beaded trims. Most often a girdle or belt cinched the waist.
A photo from about 1914 of the shop at the Butler Exchange shows Anna adjusting a flower at the waist of an evening dress, the proverbial final touch [fig. 16]. The garment has a floral damask skirt drawn up at the side with a decorative band. The material used in the bodice cannot be identified, but it appears that Anna and her client had decided on an embroidered net or lace for the garment's kimono sleeves. Dressmakers, including Anna, did not focus on the cut of the garment as a fashion designer does today. Anna's creativity rested in the way that she combined fabrics and trims - satins, velvets, nets, laces, and jet and other beads - to create a whole. Anna, and often Laura, would work with the client to design the garment by actually taking the client's chosen fabric and draping it on the dress form. "They'd...put it this way, or put it this other way, and we'd do this on the back with a train or whatever," according to Anna and Laura's niece, Emily Valcarenghi Martinelli, who worked in the shop from the period when it was located at the Butler Exchange (ca. 1911-15) until 1932.
At times, clients looked to French designs for inspiration. The most detailed of the shop's day books, that for 1916 to 1919, is filled with examples of orders in which clients request Anna to copy from various sources. Sometimes the customers' wishes are quite clear, as in Mrs. Barnes Newberry's order of 1919. She requests a henna-colored chiffon evening gown based on the sketch of a garment published by B. Altman & Company under the name "Tosca" [fig. 17]. Other clients, such as Mrs. William Ely, requested that Anna combine elements of various garments to get the look that they wanted. In March 1917, Mrs. Ely ordered a gray-and-blue foulard gown using a variety of sketches as inspiration. The front of the waist was based on an illustration of a French design by the house of Premet, published by importer William H. Taylor. The Spring 1917 Harry Angelo Company's Book of Models provided the idea for the rest of the garment: the sleeves were taken from design no. 2, the back of the waist from design no. 28, and the front of the skirt from no. 13. Some clients were more vague about their desires. Anna was left to interpret the instructions of Mrs. Brigham, who ordered a black satin evening dress that she wished to look like something between Haas Brothers's sketch no. 379 and Harry Angelo Company's no. 40, designed by Agnès.(7)
Although model books were available to tailors and dressmakers and were often used for design inspiration, they were published with another purpose in mind. American dry-goods importers and department stores produced model books semiannually and used them as sales catalogues in conjunction with week-long showings of their spring and fall models from Paris. With the model books, dressmakers from throughout the United States could acquire the texiles, trims, and notions needed to make true Paris designs. The majority of model books were illustrated with sketches of the designs or with photographs. In B. Altman's Advance Styles for Spring and Summer, 1918, photographs of the models are accompanied by detailed descriptions of the many materials available to create the gown. Of course, all of these components could be purchased from Altman's. Altman's model Ombrette, [fig. 18] could be constructed using "61ò4 yds. 22 in. lace edge; 15ò8 yds. 45 in. edge; 43ò4 yds. 8 in. lace insertion; 2 yds. white china silk; 15ò8 yds. chiffon; 31ò4 yds. georgette; 2 yds. 2 in. lace edge; 11ò4 yds white mousseline; 1 yd. green silk net."(8)
Importers and department-store buyers traveled to France at least twice a year to acquire the rights to Paris couture designs. Each design was accompanied by a list of the materials used in its creation, along with sources of supply. The American firm would acquire the materials used in the originals or make substitutions. The American showings included both the actual Paris models and the importer's versions of the designs, along with the fabrics from which they were constructed.(9) In 1918, the Harry Angelo Company acquired a dinner dress from the Parisian couturiere Jeanne Paquin and offered their interpretation of it in the 1918 spring model book [fig. 19]. The original dress was illustrated in Vogue, June 1, 1918 [fig. 20]. Although the dresses are similar, the lace used in the Harry Angelo Company model is of a more traditional design, giving the dress a somewhat conservative look. The Angelo lace would also have been less expensive, as it lacked the scalloped lower edge. Very few importers actually advertised in Vogue. One of them was Haas Brothers, who announced in the magazine that their "Blue Book of Paris Models can now be seen at the leading Dressmakers and Ladies' Tailors" [fig. 21].
As the twentieth century progressed, manufacturers and importers introduced time- and labor-saving innovations to enable dressmakers to more easily reproduce model gowns. Decorated skirt panels, lace flounces, and pre-embroidered and ornamented lengths of fabric, called "robes," were made available to dressmakers. The "robe's" embroidery was usually worked to conform to the shape of the finished garment, and pattern edges were clearly indicated so that the dressmaker could easily cut out and assemble the pattern's pieces with reference to the individual customer's measurements. Model books - those of the Harry Angelo Company form the most complete set in the Tirocchi Archive - illustrate the evolution toward these time-saving materials. Between 1918 and 1924, Harry Angelo's model books increasingly offered embroideries, "robes," and finally, "model sets" that included everything needed to complete the garment, in order to simplify the dressmaker's task. Anna took advantage of these materials. During the early years of the shop, she ordered a large number of embroidered and decorated panels. Dressmakers stitched together the large panels to make overskirts, while smaller panels could be adapted to create bodices and kimono sleeves. Figure 22 shows a skirt panel and matching border probably dating close to 1911 or 1912, when A. & L. Tirocchi opened for business at the Butler Exchange. The panel and border have been embroidered in the art nouveau taste popular during the first decade of the twentieth century. Lace flounces and borders were also available.
Cabinets full of lace and embroidered panels remained in the shop on Broadway at the time of Anna's death in 1947. Their survival was probably due to a change in style that occurred between 1918 and 1924, when the bodice, skirt, and waist girdle typical of the 1910s and earlier gave way to the simple chemise shape of the 1920s. The many varieties of laces, embroideries, trims, and panels offered during the 1910s and into the early 1920s did not suit this new conception, which lent itself to a different kind of overall decoration. The existing Tirocchi stock quickly went out of fashion, accounting for the large amount of material remaining in the house: goods that could not be returned to manufacturers or importers. The Tirocchis were not the only ones affected by the radical shift in fashion, for the industry as a whole suffered. In 1922, the New York Times reported on the effect of the new fashion on Paris industry: "...Paris modes are causing an annual loss to French commerce of 500,000,000 francs. The exportation of articles de modes' and dress accessories - laces, embroideries, feathers, etc. - is that much less now. The situation is attributed...to present feminine fashions which are characterized by an absence of practically all trimmings and ornaments."(10) To make up for the loss of interest in laces and embroideries, importers began offering more "robes," which perfectly suited the changing fashion needs because they arrived with their ornament complete and integrated into the overall design. Figure 23 shows a "robe" purchased by Anna during a trip to Paris in 1926. The simple chemise shape allowed the embroidery designer to approach the garment as an overall canvas and create a design suited to it, such as these Kandinsky-inspired motifs.
The idea for "robes" was not new. It evolved naturally from the technique of embroidery, which was executed not on the finished garment, but on a length of fabric stretched over a hoop or frame. The same idea had been used in the eighteenth century for the creation of elaborately embroidered men's vests and waistcoats and had also been adapted to the drawloom for the production of "engineered" fabric, which was patterned with woven designs to the shape of the finished garment. Mercers sold these previously embroidered or brocaded lengths to their clients, who took them to tailors to be made up in the appropriate size. Although lavishly embroidered silk and velvet suits for men were replaced by those made of dark wool early in the nineteenth century, "robes" continued in use, particularly for women's dresses. Embroiderers employed them in the creation of the intricately embellished gowns of the Napoleonic era and revived them when elaborate ornament again became fashionable during the 1850s and 1860s. Mercers such as La Compagnie Lyonnaise and Gagelin-Opigez et Compagnie carried "robes" along with their other dry goods. A dress made from a "robe" of about 1855 in green taffeta brocaded with white silk to resemble lace has survived in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum, along with a picture of the skirt and a list of the materials needed to complete the dress.(11) An uncut embroidered "robe" in the RISD Museum from around 1865 provides evidence of the complexity and richness of such designs [fig. 24].
"Robes" resembling the RISD Museum example were expensive and not always appreciated by the fashion press. In 1869, La Mode Illustree contained a remark that they were not worth the cost of plain silk, as they paralyzed the imagination of the dressmaker.(12) Despite such criticism, the use of "robes" during the early twentieth century helped dressmakers like Anna to survive the radical changes in the fashion industry that occurred after World War I, including the emergence of ready-to-wear. Like their nineteenth-century ancestors, the twentieth-century "robes" arrived ready to cut and sew, often with a picture attached so that there could be no question about the look of the finished garment. [figs. 25-26]. Anna would often show the pictures to her clients when they were considering their orders for the season, so that she would not have to handle the delicate embroidered "robes," according to Emily Valcarenghi Martinelli.
The model books and the availability of "robes" not only saved Anna time and labor, but helped her in another less obvious way. After World War I, a new focus on youth culture emerged. The garments Anna had produced prior to and during the War were seen as old fashioned by the daughters of her loyal clients. Ruth Trowbridge Smith remembered that her mother loved going to visit the shop, but that she "couldn't wait to get out."(13) Alice Trowbridge, Ruth's mother, had been Anna's client since at least 1915 and had begun taking her daughter to the shop when she was a girl of sixteen.(14) In October 1922, Anna made Ruth's wedding dress and trousseau. Ruth made good use of the convenience of the model books and had two of her dresses constructed from "robes" provided by the Harry Angelo Company. A cerise velvet evening gown designed by Miler Surs was probably made from embroidery no. 4928 [figs. 27-28], while a chocolate-brown afternoon dress, designed by Drecoll, was made from embroidery no. 4930 [fig. 29]. The pieces for both of these are referred to as "model sets" in the Harry Angelo Company invoice and would have provided Anna with all of the materials needed to recreate the garments as they were pictured in Harry Angelo Company's Fall 1922 book of model gowns. By ordering her dresses in this manner, Ruth was assured of the latest Paris styles and did not have to rely on Anna or her mother's taste. Ruth Trowbridge's parents spent $160 for their daughter's evening gown and $98 for the afternoon dress, not an insignificant amount at the time and almost equal to the cost of custom-made gowns.
Clients like the Trowbridges paid dearly to purchase dresses created by the Tirocchis. Anna's prices were significantly above those of ready-made dresses offered in American catalogues, but her clients were willing to pay for the privilege of having their gowns custom made from the finest materials Anna could obtain. A few of the entries in the customer ledger include very detailed accounts of the materials used and show that they were a significant aspect of the final cost. In February 1920, Mrs. A. T. Wall had an evening gown of black-and-gold brocaded fabric made. The total cost came to $195.75 and was broken down as follows:(15)
5 1/2 yds brocade @ $20.00 $110.00
Jet for neck and front 16.00
2 ornaments for shoulder @ $5.00 10.00
Fringe for front and back 3.75
Gold ribbon 42" and tulle for top 6.00
In contrast, an embroidered chiffon evening dress from B. Altman's Book of Styles, the Spring/Summer 1923 catalogue of ready-mades, was selling for $42 and a silk afternoon dress for $44.50.(16) Sears, Roebuck and Company was offering an all-silk canton crepe afternoon dress for $15.95.(17)
A dress for day wear was as complicated as an evening gown. There was little change in the cut or construction of the basic garment to differentiate one from the other. The main difference was in the materials used, as may be seen in the record of a day dress ordered by Mrs. Wall in the winter of 1916-17 for a total cost of $118:(18)
7 yds blue satin @3.00 $21.00
Blue embroidered garniture 40.00
7 yds silver ribbon 2.00
The fabrication of new garments was one aspect of Anna's work. More challenging, perhaps, was the making over and alteration of older garments to keep them in style. This work was usually commissioned after women reviewed their wardrobes for the coming season. A look at the transactions of one of the Tirocchis' most loyal customers, Mrs. Charles B. Luther, shows that she had her clothing restyled often. In January of 1917 she was billed for the making and furnishing of a velvet evening dress with black and blue stripes. In November 1917, she returned and paid $2 to have a new collar put on it, and in November 1918, she brought the dress back again and had it remade for afternoon wear at a cost of $40. Between the years 1916 and 1920, Mrs. Luther had fifty-six business transactions with A. & L. Tirocchi: thirty-one involved the creation of new clothes and twenty-five the remaking or altering of the old. Clients also relied on A. & L. Tirocchi for the upkeep of their wardrobes. Women would bring to the shop clothing that was difficult to clean and press, particularly the elaborate evening gowns made by Anna early on. The delicate net sleeves of many of these appear to have been a constant problem, and women often brought back their dresses to have the sleeves repaired or replaced. Between 1917 and 1922, Mrs. Luther had Anna put new sleeves on at least six dresses. Later in the 1920s, as fashion moved away from the elaborately constructed garments of the 1910s, new difficulties arose, and many of the clients returned to have their velvet evening dresses steamed and the beads on their gowns resewn or replaced.
Custom-made garments and the restyling and upkeep of older garments formed the core of Anna's trade; however, as early as 1914 she had begun to offer her clients ready-made clothing. In the summer of 1914, she sold Mrs. A. T. Wall some ready-made lingerie and by the winter of 1915 was offering a selection of ready-made waists and blouses. The earliest surviving record of Anna's purchase of wholesale ready-to-wear is a September 1915 order. She received two waists and four dresses on approval from H. J. Gross Company, New York. Anna often ordered fabrics, laces, and nets from this company, but the supply of ready-to-wear appears to have been a new endeavor. Anna was pleased with the waists, but the dresses would not do and were returned on the same day. On November 20, 1915, she received another shipment of seven waists from Durante Brothers of New York, and in December Anna sold three of them: to Mrs. Erling Ostby, Mrs. A. T. Wall, and Mrs. Charles D. Owen, Jr. The acceptance of ready-made waists by Anna and her clients is easy to understand. Shirtwaists were widely manufactured in many styles and price ranges by the end of the nineteenth century. They had become an important part of American women's wardrobes, especially for those who, in unprecedented numbers, had started working outside the home in the garment industry, in department stores, and in offices as typists and secretaries. The shirtwaist, coat, and skirt became the professional working woman's uniform [fig. 30]. These three garments, the first women's separates, suited an increasing interest in practical clothing that could be worn daily on the job.
The shirtwaist and skirt also matched women's growing interest in a more active lifestyle and athletic pursuits. During the last half of the nineteenth century, the number of women participating in gymnastics and bicycling expanded, and by the end of the century women were also playing tennis, golf, and field hockey. This active, health-conscious American woman became the fashionable ideal and was personified in the illustrations of Charles Dana Gibson for Life magazine. The Gibson girl with her tall, athletic figure and her shirtwaist and skirt was illustrated in innumerable pictures and postcards and was known in both the U.S. and Europe.(19)
Ready-made dresses took a bit longer to catch on with Anna's customers, and when they did, it was the younger clients who first accepted them. In May 1916, Miss Lola Robinson purchased a ready-made dress for $50. In June, Miss Maude Martin purchased a ready-made evening dress for $60. Until 1924, ready-mades represented only a small percentage of Anna's business, ranging from no sales to about six percent in any given year (see chart on p. 31). It appears that in fall 1923, Anna was forced to confront the fact that since the 1915 move to 514 Broadway, her business had steadily declined. Almost every year saw a decrease in the number of client transactions, from a total of 490 in 1916 to 281 in 1923. The increasing availabilty of high quality and stylish women's ready-to-wear had seriously affected her business.
Anna was not the only Providence dressmaker to feel the effects of the introduction of better quality women's ready-to-wear. A study of the dressmakers listed in the Providence City Directories indicates a rapid decline in the number of dressmakers between 1915, when 727 were listed, and 1920, when that total decreased to 466. Concurrently, the directories show an increase in the number of ready-to-wear establishments from two to twelve. This trend continues during the next five years with an increase in ready-to-wear stores to sixteen and in department stores to four from seven.
INSERT CHART of Providence Clothing Suppliers
The chart above is a comparison between the total number of ladies'-wear and menswear retailers, dressmakers, and tailors taken from the Providence City Directories. The explosion in the number of retailers of ladies' ready-to-wear is marked, as is the decrease in the number of dressmakers and ladies' tailors.
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. David N. Mosessohn, Executive Chairman of the Associated Dress Industries of America, was interviewed, and he spelled out the change in women's buying habits. According to Mosessohn, it was no wonder that women preferred shopping for ready-made clothing. For a custom-made garment, women had to acquire the fabrics, trims, and notions used to make it; then find the time to work out the design of the garment with the dressmaker and to attend several fittings and alteration sessions; and she might still 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." A woman buying a ready-made dress had her choice of hundreds of garments in a variety of colors and sizes. She could try the garment on before committing to it, and there was no waiting or delay. "The dress is either carried out by the customer or it is delivered the same day to her home. It is ready to wear."(20) Anna's clients were not immune to the appeal of this growing trade. Manufacturers, primarily located in New York, invested heavily in turning out fashionable garments based on the latest styles from Paris. The simpler chemise dress, introduced as early as 1918, was relatively easy to size and produce, and by 1919, New York was home to more than eight thousand firms providing women's ready-to-wear.(21)
In the fall of 1923, Anna made a critical business decision and began to offer her clients a wide range of ready-made garments and accessories, while continuing to provide the traditional custom dressmaking services.(22) The vendor accounts show that her investment in ready-made goods increased substantially. Between 1922 and 1923, Anna's purchase of wholesale ready-made garments totaled thirteen dresses, two suits, one blouse, one sweater, and one negligee. In the spring of 1924, her investment jumped significantly when she returned from a trip to Paris with twenty-three dresses, seven knit sport suits, two coats, and five blouses. In addition, she purchased one hundred and fifty-eight dresses, two sweaters, a coat, and a wrap from American importers and manufacturers of ready-to-wear.(23)
Most of Anna's early suppliers of ready-mades were merchants and importers from whom she had been purchasing many of her textiles, laces, and trims for some years: H. I. Gross Company, Inc.; Sidney J. Stern Company, Inc.; Harry Angelo Company; and Maginnis &Thomas Importers. These large firms were also feeling competitive pressure from the growing ready-to-wear industry and were attempting to adjust. From the biggest to the smallest businesses, all were redefining their roles as the world of fashion spun faster to keep up a twentieth-century pace. Wholesalers in the millinery trade went through a similar transition, first offering clients labor-saving innovations such as prefabricated shapes (similar to the panels and "robes" of the dressmaker's wholesaler) and gradually moving into the sale of ready-made hats.(24)
The suppliers and manufacturers previously patronized by Anna and the new companies with whom she eventually established business relationships - among them the Misses Briganti, Traina Gowns, Inc., and Monte Sano and Pruzan - were instrumental in the development of upscale ready-to-wear, sometimes called "wholesale couture" or "middle-class fashion."(25) This level of ready-made manufacturing was suited to Anna's discriminating clientele. These importers and manufacturers placed more importance on stylish design for their garments, looking to Paris for inspiration, while fit was of less concern with the newly fashionable, looser, chemise dresses. Manufacturers could more easily produce such garments in standard sizes that would satisfy women accustomed to clothing made to their measurements.
Among the first women's ready-to-wear garments, dating to the early nineteenth century, were coats, cloaks, and mantles, which did not rely on close fit. By the mid-nineteenth century, European and American ready-made manufacturers were seeking Paris cachet. The tradition of Paris fashion sold abroad through models was easily adapted to the developing ready-to-wear trade. The emergence and success of this industry was recognized in the French jury report for the Exposition Universelle of 1855. With true Gallic pride in their fashion superiority, the French jury claimed, "Women's ready-to-wear is done everywhere today,...but everywhere they work after Parisian designs or models, and foreign manufacturers know very well we have no interest in their sending us their products, more or less happily copied from ours."(26) As the early twentieth century progressed, concerns like the Harry Angelo Company, Maginnis &Thomas Importers, and H. J. Gross Company, Inc., began to offer more ready-to-wear, capitalizing on their Parisian connections. Some companies, like Harry Angelo, grew to specialize in the import of French ready-made goods, while others, like Maginnis & Thomas, gradually developed into manufacturers and made and sold copies of French models. Within the French fashion establishment, some of the young designers - among them Jean Patou and Lucien Lelong - catered to this growing and important aspect of their trade and helped to usher in the new era of couture after World War I. Subordinating the art of dressmaking to the business of fashion, Patou took advantage of the increasing use of advertising to market his gowns; he offered them at low prices; and he organized his shop like an assembly line. Lelong did the same. He was interested in the scientific management of his business and discouraged the usual adjustments and alterations to his models requested by clients, so that his shop could maintain peak efficiency.(27) Lelong and especially Patou were popular with the Seventh Avenue New York manufacturers. The Frenchmen's economical use of fabric and their attempts to streamline the manufacturing process were goals Americans could appreciate.
Oddly enough, Anna's clients occasionally requested that ready-made garments be copied for them. There are probably a number of reasons for this. Many of Anna's older clients would have been accustomed to having more creative input into the choice of fabric, trim, cut, and fit. If not satisfied with a ready-made's fabric or sleeve shape, the customer could easily have Anna duplicate the overall style while adjusting the particulars to the individual. The Tirocchi "merchandise received and returned" ledgers record that on September 2, 1927, Anna ordered from Maginnis &Thomas a Jean Patou transparent black velvet evening dress trimmed with a rhinestone buckle. The ledger notes that the gown was copied for Mrs. William Hoffman in the original transparent black velvet, a shiny thin fabric made of rayon,(28) and for Mrs. A. Burns Smythe in a more traditional black silk velvet. A few days earlier, on August 31, Anna had received a black georgette dress trimmed with velvet to be worn with a peach-colored vestee with rhinestone buttons from A. Traina. Before the dress was sold to Mrs. H. S. Lampher, it was copied in blue for Mrs. Charles MacKinney.(29)
The client day books indicate that Anna did not stock all of the ready-to-wear sold in the shop. Her customers first looked at the model books, then offering ready-mades instead of "robes" and "model sets," before placing their orders. Manufacturers sometimes customized orders, as a small group of surviving Maginnis & Thomas order slips in the Tirocchi Archive reveals. A slip dated January 11, 1926, requests five garments. Two were listed with no changes, but no. 1728d was ordered in black with two specifications: instead of fur trimming elsewhere, exactly the same trim that appeared at the hem was to be used, and a new price was to be quoted for approval before production. The fourth and fifth garments were to be made of fabrics that matched samples sent in with the order.(30) RISD Museum curators found in the shop a fashion illustration meant for clients to use in the selection of garments. A very similar dress, but with a different skirt, was also found, the sort of garment that might have been requested by a client using a skirt from a different model. By contrast, a dress identical to the illustration exists in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the gift of a Philadelphia woman who must have ordered it locally [figs. 31-33].
When the finished garments arrived, customers could keep or reject them. The client day book for 1924-25 records that Mrs. E. A. Loomis placed an order on October 10, 1924, for a black satin and velvet dress with black fur bands. This was probably Maginnis &Thomas no. 1103B, designed by Premet. The dress was ordered, received by Anna on October 23, and sent to Mrs. Loomis on November 13.(31) In an order of sixteen dresses in April 1925, a black lace evening dress by Lucien Lelong arrived for Mrs. A. T. Wall, who, upon seeing the garment, must not have found it to her liking. Anna eventually sent back this dress and three others.
Returned orders were a serious problem for manufacturers. Almost twenty percent of the garments ordered by Anna were eventually returned. In the spring of 1925, Anna ordered approximately one hundred dresses and returned at least seventeen.(32) Anna was not the only retailer to manage her inventory in this way, causing major losses for the manufacturers. When a garment was sent back, the manufacturers' profits often decreased by fifty percent, because by the time the merchandise was received, it would be too late in the season to sell it to another retailer except at a large discount. The Associated Dress Industries tried valiantly to stop returns, estimated at ten percent of all sales. In 1925, the Association put aside $40,000 of its own funds to hire staff to investigate cancellations and returns. Manufacturers found guilty of sending inferior goods would be expelled from the organization, and retailers abusing the return policy were to be tried in local courts to expose unfair business practices.(33) In a letter to the New York Times, a Kansas City retailer claimed that frequently the garments did not arrive in the correct sizes, could not be sold to the customers who ordered them in the first place, and had to be returned, causing a loss to both the manufacturer and retailer.(34) According to articles published in the New York Times, the most common complaint manufacturers received from retailers was that the garments were not as good as the samples, the fabrics were flawed, the wrong thread was used, or the fabric was sewn on the wrong side.(35)
After her decision to offer ready-to-wear to her clients, Anna's business flourished. By 1927, customer billings were triple what they had been in 1923, rising from $22,706 to $62,221. In addition to selling ready-to-wear from New York, Anna also journeyed to Europe in 1924, 1926-27, 1931, and 1938 to select garments and accessories for her clients. These trips are documented in the business records, although more frequent travel was cited by Tirocchi family members in their interviews. The many invoices and papers from her trips in the 1920s paint a picture of her purchasing patterns. Anna visited many couture houses and saw a number of model shows, which were held daily in this period.(36) Business cards from Paris couturiers Lucile, Lucien Lelong, Jean Patou, Martial &Armand, Drecoll, and the fur salons of Philippe & Gaston and Chanel bear witness to her interest. Invoices also survive, revealing that she did not buy much directly from the couturiers and that her purpose may have been largely to seek inspiration. On her 1924 trip, Anna purchased four dresses and a coat from Lucile: two of the dresses and the coat were on sale. She purchased a gown, "Coquillage," and a coat, "Meduse," from Philippe &Gaston. While there are two invoices and a receipt for a deposit on dresses from Martial & Armand, it appears from a company letter that she did not return to pick them up.
Other invoices from her 1924 trip reveal that Anna spent most of her money buying accessories from Mayer Frères; laces and embroideries from H. Bequet Rabin, Helliot &Cherrier; and fabrics from E. Meyer, Rodier, and the department stores Galeries Lafayette and Magasins du Louvre. She also visited the shops of Ernest Levy and Bernard &Compagnie, buying a number of ready-made garments. From Levy she purchased five blouses and eighteen dresses, while from Bernard & Compagnie she bought seven knit garments. The merchandise she acquired during this trip to Paris characterizes the dual nature of the A. &L. Tirocchi shop at this time of transition to ready-mades. Anna continued to offer her clients custom-made clothing, so she purchased the necessary materials from some of the leading French houses. Meanwhile, her new interest in ready-to-wear and accessories led her to Ernest Levy and Bernard &Compagnie, along with the couture houses and Mayer Frères, where she purchased thirty-six handbags on sale. Anna used French-made garments and accessories to great advantage as she refocused her attention on ready-to-wear. There was a rush to her doors in April of 1924, shortly after her French goods must have arrived. Many of her best clients made purchases that month and brought their daughters, who also selected a number of ready-made garments. Six of the seven knits from Bernard sold and proved popular among the younger women. Hope Watson, Dorothy Newton Leech, Elizabeth Newton, and Maud Gardner, all second-generation clients, purchased knit ensembles called sport suits for casual wear [fig. 34].
Along with ready-to-wear, Anna expanded her business in other ways, offering a range of personal accessories and goods following the example set by the French couturiers. During the post-World War I period, the cachet of a designer's name was strong, and Paris couturiers like Poiret, Patou, and Chanel took advantage of their renown to begin marketing their own perfumes. By the 1920s, designers were also selling lingerie, hair ornaments, fans, handbags, and scarfs. At times, even household linens were available. Anna offered her clients the same. She recognized the convenience of one-stop shopping at department stores, and to retain her customers, she began in 1923 to offer linens, followed by a selection of handbags, scarves, and shawls that she brought back from France in early 1924. A few jewelry sales appear in the summer of 1924, and she continued to sell bags and scarves throughout 1924 and 1925. In 1926, she broadened her stock further, adding hats, boas, feathers, and a larger selection of jewelry [fig. 35].
Anna's business decisions proved sound, and A. & L. Tirocchi continued to be strong into the early 1930s. Her most loyal clients continued to visit 514 Broadway even after the stock market crash of 1929. By 1933, the number of clients was beginning to decline steadily, along with the amount of money they were spending. From 1931 to the spring of 1933, Anna listed sixty clients in her ledger; the 1933-34 ledger listed forty-four; the 1934-35 ledger listed thirty-eight; and the number continued to decline until 1938, when twenty-eight clients remained. Mrs. Harold J. (Mary Colt) Gross, who had become friendly with Anna and sent her photographs of herself wearing Anna's clothing, continued to purchase the majority of her wardrobe at the Tirocchi shop throughout the 1930s, although after 1931, she was seriously in arrears with her bills. In fact, all three Colt sisters had been good long-term customers, placing hundreds of dollars worth of orders, but they seem to have suffered financial reverses during the Depression. Theodora Colt Barrows left the Tirocchi fold in 1931, and Elizabeth Colt Anthony placed her last order in 1936. In 1933, Mary Colt Gross stopped making new orders and began to slowly pay off her balance of $1,219. In a letter dated June 11, 1934, she writes that she regrets "very much my delay in settling my account with you. As you know nothing like this has happened during all my business relations with you until the last year...I dislike very much to ask your further forbearance because I realize your need of money in these times." By 1935, her financial situation must have improved, since orders for imported suits, hats, blouses, and dresses reappear. Perhaps this was because she had gone to work as the manager of the Good Luck Tea and Coffee Shop. At the beginning of the next decade, however, she ceased coming altogether. The end was amicable, for Anna enjoyed one of her greatest successes in 1939, when Mrs. Gross entrusted her with the cleaning of an heirloom handmade lace wedding veil that had been wrapped in blue paper and stored in the vault of a Providence bank. During the legendary hurricane of 1938, downtown Providence was flooded by more than seven feet of water, and the veil became hopelessly stained with blue dye from the paper. Anna asked Mrs. Gross for payment in advance for this task, despite being none too sure that she could remove the stains. She washed the veil in Ivory Soap Flakes, then sun-bleached it several times and was successful. Never one to miss a chance for self-promotion, Anna wrote a testimonial about the effectiveness of this method to the Ivory Soap Flakes Company.(37)
In the late 1930s, the shop's business correspondence is full of comments regarding Anna's state of health. By 1939, Anna had closed the shop to all but her favorite customers, employing two girls to help with the work. Letters, such as one dated July 26, 1939, from Mrs. Frederick S. Peck, one of her most loyal clients, must have been extremely disheartening. Mrs. Peck complains about a mistake on her bill, about high prices, and cancels an order, then goes on to request that Anna clean a piece of Brussels lace that her granddaughter wishes to use on her wedding gown. She finishes the letter by saying, "I am sorry she has decided to order her dress from someone else." By 1940, when she would have been around sixty-seven years old, Anna could no longer keep up with the pace of fashion and let the two remaining girls go. The last ledger in the archive covers the years 1941 to 1947. Anna continued to sew for only eight women: Mrs. Stuart Aldrich, Mrs. Edgar Brunschwig, Mrs. Fred Campbell, Mrs. H. A. DuVillard, Mrs. Harold J. Gross, Mrs. William Hoffman, Mrs. Frederick S. Peck, and Mrs. David A. Seaman. Most of these women had found other dressmakers by 1942, except for Mrs. Peck, who stayed with the Tirocchi shop until Anna's death from coronary thrombosis on February 26, 1947.
Through hard work, determination, and flexibility, Anna and Laura had managed to prolong the life of their business, despite the crippling effect of the introduction of women's ready-to-wear, the competition from proliferating department stores and specialty shops, and the economic effects of the Great Depression. While many dressmakers failed, A. & L. Tirocchi began to sell ready-to-wear, fashion accessories, perfumes, and even household linens and maintained an edge by offering the same individual attention to their clients that had always been expected of good dressmakers. Unfortunately, their energy and strategic readjustment could not stay the passage of time. After her death, Anna's family carefully packed all of the business records, wrapped the fabrics, laces, ribbons, and trims in tissue, stowed them away in the shop, and closed the doors on A. & L. Tirocchi. Laura and her husband continued to live in the house, but Laura's attention now turned to her family. Anna bequeathed the house to Laura's only daughter, Beatrice, on condition that she care for her mother. At Beatrice's death in 1990, her younger brother and only sibling, Dr. Louis J. Cella, Jr., inherited the property. When he opened its doors to the curators from RISD'S Museum, the world of two early twentieth-century dressmakers and their clients, and indeed of the apparel industry itself, was called up from the dust of many years.
The interviews referred to and quoted in this essay are to be found in the A. & L. Tirocchi Archive, Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence [hereafter, Tirocchi Archive]. Such references have not been footnoted. All letters sent or received by Anna or Laura Tirocchi are understood to be found in the Tirocchi Archive. See "Note on the A. & L. Tirocchi Archive, Collection, and Catalogue," p. 23.