American Fashion: The Tirocchi Sisters in Context
Anna and Laura Tirocchi maintained a small, personalized dress business in Providence for over thirty years. These decades saw two world wars, a global economic depression, and the transformation of the industry of which they were a small part; however, the knowledge gained through study of the surviving Tirocchi shop inventory and records is only a fragment of the story of the women"s garment industry in America. Were the Tirocchis and their clients unique or typical? Was their experience of and response to the changes in their industry singular or common? To understand the Tirocchis" place in the dressmaking hierarchy of their day and the changes in the structure of their business, one must examine the wider world of American fashion.
Between 1900 and 1950, the ways in which American women of all social and economic levels thought about and acquired their clothing changed considerably. Any pretense to true high fashion in the early twentieth century required the purchase of a custom-made and custom-fitted wardrobe from Paris couturiers or from American importers and reproducers of Paris models.(1) Although Paris was generally the source of high fashion for what was considered at various times "high society," "the smart set," or "café society," it is also true for most of this period that to be well dressed in Paris required both money and social position, or money and celebrity. Women outside the small circle of wealthy frequenters of Paris couturiers did not exist for the style makers. Bettina Ballard wrote of this "small egocentric group of...chic Parisiennes...who inspired the couturiers and the modistes, the women for whom fashion was really created." She pointed out that during this time, society women "wouldn't have been considered eligible for a fashionable reputation until they were at least 35 and with their children behind them."(2) The youth cult of the post-World War II years was foreign to the elegance of haute couture. True high fashion was always the preserve of the few, but, as a later writer pointed out, "No style is fashionable until it is imitated."(3)
American fashion was seen by most critics as primarily imitative, with few original stylists. In spite of this, at all price levels American-made garments clothed the vast majority of American women. During the commercial life of the Tirocchi shop, the American garment industry learned to combine Art with Big Business. The notion that fashion and style could be made available to the majority of women, whether they were working class or leisure class, was an American original [fig. 77]. In the first decades of the twentieth century, class and social structure in the United States were much more fluid than in Europe. Social position was based not only on family and property, but also on wealth, however it was acquired, and on education: it was possible to cross boundaries. The definition of "society" began to broaden, as the aristocracy by birth and old money began to find competition from a new aristocracy of achievement, celebrity, and notoriety: the "café society" of the 1920s. While there was without doubt a leisured "Society" deserving of the capital "S" in the United States, there was also a need for stylish apparel among the countless women who worked outside the home, whether as volunteers or as wage earners.
Manufacturing, clerical, academic, administrative, and management positions blurred and broadened the definition of "middle class." Educational opportunities in women"s colleges and state schools and universities were available to more and more females. College life, clerical jobs, and careers such as teaching and social work required neat, professional clothing that was not necessarily on the cutting edge of fashion. American women were active in a wide variety of social, charitable, and political clubs and organizations. For town-dwellers it was relatively easy to participate in active sports or to attend a variety of public or private entertainments. The availability of alternative jobs made domestic service an increasingly unpopular choice of livelihood. Women with fewer or no servants needed clothing that was easier to wear and maintain. Wages, although usually much lower for women than for men, were generally higher here than in Europe. Single working women typically lived at home and contributed their earnings to the family coffers, but were given back a certain amount for clothing and entertainment.(4) This large population of women of differing economic means, all of whom required clothing suitable for their various activities, had to be addressed. Many writers on fashion from this period agreed with American apparel designer and critic Elizabeth Hawes"s assessment of the growth of ready-to-wear in America, even for women who could afford custom-made clothes: "A lot of women in America are just too busy to come for fittings."(5)
All of these factors contributed to the growth of the ready-to-wear clothing industry in the United States and to the role of fashion in that industry. In turn, the industry utilized mass media to encourage consumers to respond to new fashions. The choices made by consumers eventually led to the development of a recognizably American aesthetic in fashion. The goal of the industry was not merely to make cheap, serviceable clothing to cover the masses, but to make fashionable clothing available to most income levels. Custom dressmakers, like the Tirocchis, had to adapt to the needs and wants of their customers and to the competition offered by mass production, or fail.
In order for consumers to develop a fashion consciousness, there must be effective means of spreading information about fashion. How was word about new styles disseminated throughout the United States? The program of the 1940 Fashion Group Inc. presentation, New York's Fashion Futures, stated: "There's no Main Street anymore...She may come from a small town, but she doesn't look it. No one's a country cousin, a jay, a hick any more." The fashion press had become increasingly important in "educating Americans about style."(6) Women learned about fashion by reading magazines and newspapers, attending motion-picture and live performances, window-shopping in their local stores or on big-city visits, and -as today -in a variety of mundane ways that are difficult to assess.
The 1940 Fashion Group program lists journalistic advertisers and supporters that covered both high and volume fashion, including: Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, Mademoiselle, Ladies' Home Journal, Woman's Day, McCall's, The New Yorker, Town and Country, Good Housekeeping, Bride's, Woman's Home Companion, and Collier's magazines. Several of these titles were descendants of nineteenth-century women's magazines, which had included fashion, etiquette, needlework and other craft patterns and instructions, and home decorating advice among their contents. Access to fashion information was not new in the twentieth century, but the scale of its distribution was.
Vogue and Harper's Bazar were important American showcases for French haute couture. Vogue, from its inception in 1892 as a biweekly magazine covering society and fashion, was meant for an audience at the higher end of the social scale. Although Vogue included ads for American custom dressmakers such as Thurn, Jessie Franklin Turner, and Hattie Carnegie, and both retailer's and manufacturer's ads for ready-to-wear, it was not until February 1938 that Vogue first devoted an entire issue to American fashion.(7) The French and British editions of Vogue, which had their own editorial staffs and relied on local advertising revenue, may be assumed to have promoted even fewer American designers than the parent magazine. In contrast, Harper's Bazar devoted serious space to American couturiers fairly early on. Even before 1900, New York and Paris fashions were reported side by side. Pages of original designs by New York designers Henri Bendel, E.M.A. Steinmetz, and Hermann Patrick Tappé appeared in issues from the 1910s and 1920s [fig. 78].
Many other women's magazines devoted some proportion of their pages to fashion and so employed fashion editors, such as Helen Koues of the Ladies' Home Journal and Isabel DeNyse Conover of Woman's Home Companion. These publications gave fashion direction to middle-class women, while paying close attention to Paris couturiers and Paris trends. This particular print medium, however, was only one of many venues for spreading the fashion gospel.
Dress-pattern companies also put out magazines, such as Vogue Pattern Quarterly, The Delineator, The Pictorial Review, Elite Styles, Le Costume Royal (The Royal Pattern Company), and The Fashionist. Vogue's first patterns, from the mid-1890s, were carried in the parent magazine and were sold mail-order in one size (36" bust) only, with each pattern cut out individually by the originator, Mrs. Rosa Payne, in her home.(8) Sized patterns had been available from other sources, however, since the 1860s. Cut-to-measure patterns copied from French couturiers (almost certainly without authorization) appeared in Vogue after the turn of the century. Paris models of 1911 from Francis, Paquin, Poiret, Bernard, and Bernhardt were illustrated in the May 1 issue at $1 for a coat or skirt and $2 for a suit or gown. The Royal Pattern Company included both unattributed designs and Paris couture styles among its offerings. A 1912 issue showed work by Chéruit, Drécoll, Poiret, Lanvin, Paquin, and Hallée. The company kept the imported models from which the patterns were taken on display in its New York showroom, perhaps indicating that these were actually licensed copies.(9) McCall's Patterns first offered licensed copies of French designs in 1927. Vogue Patterns published its "Paris Couture" patterns in 1931, but since the copies were unlicensed, the names of the original designers were not on the patterns. For most companies, by far the largest number of designs (then as now) were adaptations of the prevailing modes by anonymous stylists, although Butterick Pattern Company was caught making unauthorized copies of Paris models in the 1930s.(10) Except for a brief appearance by some Hollywood costume designers in Butterick's "Starred" patterns in 1933, no evidence has surfaced so far that well known American designers licensed their work to, or were copied by, pattern firms before World War II [fig. 79].(11)
These magazines may have been especially important to the home dressmaker or patron of the small dressmaking shop as aids to decisions about fabrics, trims, and accessories, as well as in the primary discussion of silhouette or style. Some publications, such as Elite Styles, Le Costume Royal, and Le Bon Ton were specifically aimed at professional dressmakers.(12) The Elite Styles Company even held fashion shows at its New York headquarters to acquaint out-of-town dressmakers with the latest models. The Woman's Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences in Scranton, Pennsylvania, published Inspiration, beginning in 1916, for its dressmaking students, and the Fashion Service, which illustrated for subscribers both Paris adaptations and patterns from American sources such as Pictorial Review, Butterick, Ladies' Home Journal, and McCall's.(13) Examples of some of the titles mentioned are found in the Tirocchi Archive.
Newspapers, of course, also had fashion information, usually in the "women's pages," which also carried reports on club activities and society doings. Sunday photogravure sections of the paper also included the latest in dress. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Providence Sunday Journal's fashion editor, Madeliene [sic] Corey, attended the Paris openings and later put together articles describing the new styles, illustrated with photos or sketches of models available locally. No Providence shops or dressmakers were mentioned in the text, although the Paris designers often were. Readers had to call or write for a list of local purveyors.(14) Vogue, during the same decades, also asked readers to send in for the names of shops where merchandise mentioned in features or sections such as "Seen in the Shops" or "Fashions for Limited Incomes" could be purchased.
The Providence Journal was not the only newspaper with a fashion editor, and some, such as Eugenia Sheppard of the New York Herald Tribune, wielded real power in the fashion industry. Syndicated columnists, most notably Tobé (Mrs. Tobé Coller Davis) were also extremely important in spreading a uniform fashion gospel throughout the nation. Edna Woolman Chase noted that in addition to her column, Tobé advised "more than a thousand stores on fashion trends, compiling, printing, and mailing weekly a fifty-page report telling her clients how and where to buy the clothes customers will shortly be demanding. Tobé didn't invent dirndl skirts, sweater blouses, slim pants, and years ago, Bramley dresses, but she foresaw their immense popularity and by advising the nation's stores accordingly made these clothes great fashion Fords..."(15)
Fashion critics noted that the relationship between fashion makers and fashion writers entailed a conflict of interest between journalistic integrity and advertising revenue. Designers, manufacturers, or retailers who advertised in a publication often expected favorable editorial treatment over those who bought little or no ad space, and advertising departments were often reluctant to offend an advertiser through editorial coverage of a competitor. Efforts to preserve advertising revenues often meant that local makers or retailers remained anonymous except to those few who wrote in for the information. Edna Woolman Chase detailed her efforts to keep Vogue's fashion features free from the tyranny of advertisers during this period. She explained to one manufacturer that in order to maintain the prestige of Vogue, the major attraction for advertisers, she could not use his product: "But how do you suppose we have won that prestige?...It is because we insist on quality in the merchandise we show...You may get into Vogue through the advertising pages, but to come in the editorial door you must give me material we can be proud to use." This assessment of the relationship between advertising and editorial space in the magazine was not always accepted by other observers, who claimed to see a direct correlation between the amount of advertising space a company paid for and the number of times its products were featured editorially.(16)
New York was the primary American center for dissemination of fashion and style information through the publication of the bigger magazines. Most cities, however, had department stores with custom departments catering to a wealthy clientele and sections called "Budget," "Moderate," or "Better" dresses to accommodate less well-off working-and middle-class customers. Many of these stores produced mail-order catalogues of their merchandise or small in-house style magazines to distribute to customers. Chicago's Marshall Field & Company published Fashions of the Hour "periodically," while William Filene"s & Sons Company in Boston published Clothes on a quarterly schedule. Store catalogues are often particularly interesting for the many different names and price levels of departments within the store. Among the Filene's departments were the French Shop (few-of-a-kind dresses), Misses' Gown Shop, Women's Inexpensive Dress Shop, Misses' Sport Shop, and the House Frocks Shop.(17) Department stores without the means to publish their own magazine could distribute a bi-monthly publication called Modes & Manners, which was produced with the store's name and city on the cover, but contained generic fashion and home-decorating information, including coverage of the Paris trends, and national ads [fig. 80]. Two copies exist in the RISD files, one (complete) from P. A. Bergner and Co. in Peoria, Illinois (April -May 1929) and the other (cover only) from the Jordan Marsh Company in Boston (April -May 1926).(18) Of course, mail-order catalogues from firms that had no retail outlets, such as the National Cloak and Suit Company, were also in circulation.
Many manufacturers of apparel, fabrics, and accessories also published style sheets or books for the trade, which illustrated how their products should be used or worn. Maurice Rentner put out "his own little fashion magazine" called Quality Street, for which he claimed to write most of the copy himself.(19) H. R. Mallinson & Company put out its Blue Book of Silks regularly. A 1921 booklet illustrated fabrics, clothing, and accessories through black-and-white photographs. The 1926 booklet that accompanied their "American National Parks" silk series included photographs of the parks, the textile designs derived from the photographs, and drawings of dress patterns from several companies to show how the fabrics might be best used.(20) According to Mallinson ads in Harper's Bazar in the 1920s, the booklets were available to readers by mail at a cost of ten cents. Several Haas Brothers sample books, containing fabric samples and illustrations of garments, exist in the Tirocchi Archive. The Textile Department of The Museum at The Fashion Institute of Technology possesses several books from No-Mend Hosiery Company of the 1930s and 40s, which contain actual samples of hosiery with drawings of the season's new styles and swatches of appropriate fabrics and leathers from the textile and leather manufacturers themselves [fig. 81]. Another firm advertised that its "Holeproof Color Ensemble Book," found in hosiery departments, was an important guide for fashion-conscious consumers. E.M.A. Steinmetz illustrated the book shown in the May 1932 Harper's Bazaar ad. These books may also have functioned as salesmen's sample books.
Readers also saw illustrations for the new fashions in advertisements from shops and stores in the local papers and for large manufacturers, regional department stores, and bigger specialty shops in the magazines. Even general interest and business magazines such as Fortune, Life, and Collier's presented features on fashion designers or manufacturers, particularly in the 1930s, as interest in American designers grew and as American industries -including the fashion industries -began to prepare for the coming war in Europe.
It is also important to factor in the new, non-print medium of motion pictures, which made access to up-to-date fashions widespread. The clothing worn by stars in films could, and often did, have an impact on the style-conscious even in small towns, but the newsreels and short features shown in that era before every feature film also carried fashion information. A 1923 ad for the house of Milgrim promoted designer Sally Milgrim as fashion editor of "Selznick's Weekly Movie News."(21) In 1924, a New York Times article reported that Keith Theatres, a chain of movie houses, would "cooperate with retailers in showing new styles."(22)
On occasion, live fashion shows sponsored by textile and apparel manufacturers or trade organizations were held in movie theaters. A "Velvet Revue" of garments made by several ready-to-wear manufacturers from fabrics by Shelton Looms was advertised in late 1929 as a coming attraction in Loew, Stanley, and Paramount theaters throughout the country. Hotels were also common sites for live fashion shows. The Hotel Astor in New York was home to the January 1915 cooperative "fashion exposition," sponsored by the United Fashion Company of New York, and to a 1937 Velvet Guild Review featuring fashions by Helen Cookman, Walter Plunkett, and Irene, among others.(23) The Providence Sunday Journal of September 24, 1939, ran an ad by Fredleys, a Providence specialty shop, which invited readers to "attend a Fashion Luncheon in the Garden Restaurant of the Providence Biltmore Wednesday, September twenty seventh at twelve thirty o'clock. Mannequins will present a most brilliant collection of clothes for autumn wear." The fixed-price luncheon cost $1.25, and reservations were required.(24)
Once a woman had educated herself about current fashions, how did she go about clothing herself in them? Just as today, the options then available were made-to-order, ready-to-wear, or home-sewn clothing. Within this framework, however, women had a much broader range of choices than would be expected nowadays. In addition to purchasing French models or authorized copies of French designs, custom-made clothes could also be had from the better known dressmakers and fashion creators who worked in New York or other large cities. Women could also purchase, according to their means, fabrics and trims from retail shops and department stores and take them home or to their local dressmaker to make up. By the mid-1910s, acceptable ready-to-wear women's garments were no longer confined to pieces such as blouses, skirts, cloaks, and undergarments, which were either loose-fitting or easily altered. By the late 1920s, ready-to-wear clothing purchases, through mail order or from retail shops, far outnumbered those from other sources. Then, as now, second-hand clothing could also be purchased. It is likely that the wardrobes of all but the very wealthy and the very poor contained elements from at least a few of these categories.
Sewing presented women who had to work with a way to do so within the bounds of traditional feminine roles. Mary Brooks Picken, author of many books on sewing and dressmaking and director of the fashion and sewing program of the Woman's Institute of Domestic Arts & Sciences, advised women on how to earn a living with a needle. One could "conduct a dressmaking and tailoring establishment or simply a dressmaking shop...or specialize in sewing in some other way, as, for instance, sewing by the day..." She explained how to conduct a business of either plain sewing at home for others or going to clients' homes by the day or week. The importance of taste, cleanliness, and a good selection of current fashion magazines were all stressed.(25)
Evidence suggests that in many middle- and upper-class households it was common to have a local dressmaker come to the house twice a year or so to make up on the premises things that were needed for the coming season. This practice, widespread in the pre-World War I years, probably continued for much longer than has previously been understood. Carolyn B. Reed, chairman of the Arlington branch of the American Red Cross in 1946, wrote a memoir of a day's shopping in 1910 for the Boston Herald. She recalled that "nearly every home had its dress form...and its semi-annual family dressmaker, augmented by a bi-weekly seamstress. These faithful visitors moulded and worked on the necessary and serviceable blue serge dress, or the broadcloths and silks to wear to church, as well as the beautiful satin brocades and moirés for evening wear. Dress materials such as these were the object [of the shopping trip]."(26) Ladies" Home Journal carried an advice article in 1917 with the pointed title "Sewing in Other People's Homes."(27) One North Carolina woman, now in her eighties, recalled having had dance dresses made up by her mother's favorite local seamstress as late as the early 1930s. A New England woman recalled from her childhood in the early 1910s that only basics -school skirts and blouses, nightclothes, and flannel undergarments -issued from the needle of the woman who visited twice a year, while special clothes were commissioned from Boston or a local dressmaker who kept a shop.(28)
Women could also sew for themselves and their families. Mary Brooks Picken's Woman's Institute ran correspondence courses in sewing and provided paperbound booklets containing instruction on the principles of design, advice on choosing patterns or reproducing simple garments, and illustrations showing the proper methods of putting the garments together. In addition, the final page of the booklet contained a list of examination questions, which the correspondent answered on a special sheet of paper and sent in for grading [fig. 82]. How-to-sew books and wardrobe-planning books were commonplace commodities: for example, Dress and Look Slender, and Designing Women: The Art, Technique and Cost of Being Beautiful.(29) Home-economics textbooks for high-school and college students also focused on sewing, choosing, and caring for clothes. One such book, Textiles and Clothing by Ellen Beers McGowan and Charlotte A. Waite, was first published in 1919, but revised by the authors in 1931 to keep up to date with the increased use of synthetic fibers. Another textbook, The Arts of Costume and Personal Appearance by Grace Margaret Morton, was published in 1943. It should be remembered that home-economics classes were required for girls (and only for girls) in public junior and senior high schools until fairly recently and also that when higher education for women was still controversial, choosing home economics as a college major was one way to defuse the argument that attending college was unfeminine as well as unnecessary.
Many women's magazines carried patterns that home sewers could write in to request. Vogue maintained one of the largest services, by 1915 carrying patterns for suits, day dresses, coats, evening frocks, evening cloaks, blouses, lingerie, sleepwear, and collections of three to six different sleeve or collar styles combined in one set.(30) Good Housekeeping also had a pattern service, although on a smaller scale than Vogue, and it also had a shopping service for out-of-town readers [fig. 83]. The editors featured a selection of finished and "semi-made" dresses from New York shops, which readers could order through the magazine. Although no shop or manufacturer names were listed, the guarantee of New York's Fifth Avenue was perceived as an indicator of quality and style. The April 1929 issue shows fifteen dresses and ensembles over three pages, including sportswear and models for day and afternoon. A sleeveless, partially made, printed batiste dress was priced at $2.95, a polka-dot silk day dress at $15, and a two-piece checked silk dress with a suede belt at $35. The Ladies' Home Journal boasted in 1940 that "Journal readers want high fashion," offering as evidence that "226,706 readers ordered a pattern for a John-Frederics hat and handbag from a recent issue."(31)
Purchasing cut-out or partially made garments to sew at home was possible through other sources in addition to women's magazines. The Costume and Textile Department library at the Museum of Art, RISD, contains two catalogues from New York companies, Berth Roberts and Fifth Avenue Modes, who sold semi-made dresses by mail order.(32) The clothes were called "semi-finished" or"finish-at-home" fashions. The garments were said to be "cut-to-measure," meaning individually cut to the measurements sent in by the customer, as opposed to being cut to a standard size. All the detail sewing was done by the manufacturer, which generally meant that collars and cuffs, pleats, tucks, decorative stitching, multiple rows of gathering -almost anything other than straight seams -were already in place when the home sewer received the kit [fig. 84]. The purchaser was assured that "since all the difficult sewing is done in our Fifth Avenue shop, by the most skilled men-tailors, a Finish-at-Home" garment never looks home-made."(33) Depending on the model, prices averaged half that of a comparable "Budget" or "Moderate" ready-to-wear dress at the time. Both catalogues had back sections with a few pages of accessories, blouses, lingerie, and some dresses available as ready-to-wear. The Berth Robert publication included a finished maid's uniform and apron (along with a few summer menus), which raises some questions as to the social class of the market targeted by the firm.
In examining the dressmaking business of Anna and Laura Tirocchi, it is important to understand the context of both the Providence microcosm and the larger fashion world. The Tirocchi sisters were not the only dressmakers in Providence and may not have been either the most successful or the best. The evidence suggests that they were also not the only dressmakers to move from the made-to-order to the ready-made world. The Providence City Directory for 1911, the first year in which the sisters are listed under the heading "Dressmakers," filled eight and one half columns over five pages with the names of other dressmakers. This is in addition to listings for "Cloaks and Suits," "Clothing Dealers," "Clothing -Retail," "Department Stores," and "Dry Goods." As the nature of the clothing business in the United States changed, the number of dressmakers dropped, while listings for "Clothing Dealers - Retail' increased. By 1937, separate listings were required for "Men's and Boys' and "Women's and Misses' clothing.
It is worth noting that the names in the Directory listings changed from personal to corporate as the nature of the clothing industry evolved. Rose Carraer-Eastman, a Providence dressmaker active as early as 1896 (under her birth name of Carragher) and still listed under "Dressmakers" in 1918, had exchanged this heading for "Cloaks and Suits" by 1924. Given the names of the other listings under the "Cloaks and Suits" category, it seems that Eastman had shifted the focus of her business from custom dressmaking to ready-to-wear sales, although at least until 1930 she was still purchasing small quantities of specialty fabrics from the French manufacturer Soieries F. Ducharne. By 1937, the business was called Zarr Rose Eastman Inc. and was listed under "Clothing Dealers -Retail, Women's and Misses." It had also moved from the downtown district, formerly dense with dressmaking establishments, up the hill to Thayer Street on Providence's residential East Side, a shopping street with many other small retail establishments conveniently located to its clientele.
The large amount of material preserved in the Tirocchi Archive allows a glimpse into the business activities of the sisters. In most other instances, all that remains as evidence of a dressmaker's work are advertisements, or perhaps a single labeled garment in the collections of a museum or historical society. It is not always easy to ferret out additional information. For instance, a dress from about 1918 in the RISD Museum collection has a label reading "Dowling, Providence" [fig. 85]. A check of the Providence City Directories for 1917, 1918, and 1919 reveals three possibilities: Louise G. Dowling, Mary J. Dowling, and Nellie T. Dowling. The 1911 Directory lists the two latter, and two additional: M. A. and A. E. (together at one address), and Nellie L. The three listed in 1918 are also listed as late as 1932, but only Mary J. survives in the listings to 1937. It is possible that the Mamie J. Dowling listed in 1901 is the Mary J. Dowling of the later directories, just as the Helen T. Dowling at 24 Mansfield Street in 1924 may be presumed to have been the Nellie T. Dowling of 24 Mansfield Street in 1918. There has yet to be uncovered any trove of written documentation of any of the Dowling businesses that might allow attribution of the surviving dress to one or another of these women. The dress is a work of art, but in the absence of documentary evidence, the artist must yet be considered unknown. Several other dresses with labels from Providence dressmakers, including Rose Carraer-Eastman, may be found in the RISD collection. These examples testify to the existence of several producers of high quality work and, by extension, to the probable existence of no little competition among dressmakers to retain their clients. The diary of Harriet Sprague Watson Lewis (Mrs. Jack Lewis) in the Rhode Island Historical Society"s collection provides evidence that at least one East Side society woman tried the Tirocchi shop for a season before returning to her previous dressmaker, Rose Carraer-Eastman.(34)
Custom-made clothes by dressmakers such as Carraer-Eastman, Dowling, and A. & L. Tirocchi were more common than either haute couture or ready-to-wear during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Custom dressmakers brought to their trade a wide range of both technical and artistic skills. To many, the word "dressmaker" connotes a technician. In fact, many custom dressmakers contented themselves with copying Paris models or interpreting styles from print sources in the client's choice of fabric and color. It takes something extra to turn a dressmaker into a designer. It is difficult now to gauge how original or creative individual dressmakers were. One is equally likely to undervalue as to overvalue their work. Even among the acknowledged designers, style leadership was not constant from year to year or season to season.
In that era when the names of French designers were elevated above all, who were the men and women who designed or styled for the American market? Were there, in either the custom or wholesale trades, those who had that extra something to deserve the appellation of designer? Was there a definable American aesthetic or style? Since the industry in this country was so large and reached across many price levels, the answers are difficult to find. Few American dressmakers have been studied by fashion scholars. Anonymity is a very real stumbling block, and issues of attribution arise in evaluating work. Many designers and stylists worked for specialty shops, department stores, or ready-to-wear manufacturers who preferred to cultivate client loyalty to a brand name or trademark rather than to a designer name. People who were well known for one type of garment sometimes moonlighted, anonymously, in other areas of the industry. Both custom and ready-to-wear houses are known to have purchased sketches of models designed by free-lance artists. Well known fashion personalities such as Hattie Carnegie and Maurice Rentner are often described as "editors" of ideas that emerged from an in-house stable of designers. In such cases, who gets the credit for the finished product?
Custom dressmakers may be assumed to have varied widely in skill, originality, and clientele. Certainly even a cursory examination of the classified listings in Vogue and Harper's Bazar from the 1910s, 20s, and 30s opens up avenues for further research. The issue of Vogue for October 15, 1915, lists twenty-six names in the classified ads for providers of "Gowns and Waists" made to order and six names for the same category of ready-to-wear. Vogue's "Address Book" in the January 15, 1935, issue still lists six names under "Dressmaking." Sample book no. 17 for Soieries F. Ducharne, probably from 1930 (in the Musée des Tissus de Lyon), lists among those who ordered yardage names from all over the United States, some well known, others unfamiliar. Representative names include Lucile Woods and Misses Perkins and Collins, Los Angeles; Mrs. E. H. Hills, Baltimore; Greer, Inc., Dot Gregson, Irene, Jean Schwartz, and RKO Studio, Hollywood; Stella L. Chapman, Minneapolis; Mrs. McFadden and Katir, Philadelphia; and Mme. Clara and O'Connor Moffat, San Francisco; not to mention the many purchasers from the sizable New York market. A detailed analysis of the names in the rest of the Ducharne records and order books from other companies might give quite an interesting picture of the purchase of French fabrics by American custom and wholesale dressmakers.(35)
Some dressmakers copied from legitimately imported and/or pirated Paris designs, and also, by the late 1920s, from American models of the top custom houses or high-end wholesalers. Many ads throughout these decades echo two from a 1936 issue of Harper's Bazaar: those of Mme. Lichtenstein at 286 Park Ave, who had "just returned from abroad,"(36) and Janet Rose, Importer, who was "just returned from the Paris openings." It seems to have been accepted in the early decades of the century that models illustrated in magazines were open to copying or interpreting in other fabrics and colors by individual clients of custom dressmakers,(37) although even in the early 1910s, many dressmakers also offered original designs. Madame Najla Mogabgab, with shops in New York, Palm Beach, Newport, and Hot Springs (Virginia) -the East Coast social centers -advertised herself as both importer and designer.(38) Other names offering both services, such as Joseph, Thurn, Stein and Blaine, L. P. Hollander, and Annette Mayer, may be found in advertisements, in the "Shoppers and Buyers Guide" pages of Vogue, and the "Where to Shop" listings in Harper's Bazar. A hierarchy existed within the high-end custom trade, based on whether the business was entirely custom, existed as part of a specialty shop or department store, or also produced ready-to-wear.(39)
Berley Studio and Spurdle Studio were two firms that produced books of "After designs," with sketches of Paris models annotated by indications of colors, fabrics, and trims [fig. 86]. Some designers (Elizabeth Hawes and Muriel King, for example) got their start in fashion as sketchers: those who would commit models from the Paris showings to memory and then draw them afterward on commission by wholesale houses in the U.S. or elsewhere in Europe. The sketches were used by many custom dressmakers and wholesale manufacturers to style their own lines of merchandise. These drawings were not always employed to create direct copies. They were also used to inform American manufacturers of the latest Paris trends. The final American products would feature original details or twists on the Paris silhouette.
High-end retailers with custom salons (Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman, Bonwit Teller, Jay-Thorpe, Henri Bendel) would not only buy Paris models for reproduction, but also often had in-house designers to create originals for clients. Their work was sometimes seen in fashion magazines alongside that of the Paris couturiers. An early example of a shop that employed designers was Hickson's, Inc., a New York specialty house. In 1915, the store advertised not only Paris models," but "collaborateurs...who will meet patrons with the view of providing exclusive and unusual creations..." The advertisement went on to actually name the in-house design staff: Jean, Mr. Melville Ellis, and the Baron de Planta.(40) Other shops preferred to keep their in-house designers anonymous, conforming to an advertising style like that of Best & Company, which offered the "Newest modes...featuring the latest Parisian novelties...Including many original and distinctive effects, designed exclusively by us."(41) Bendel's also kept its custom design staff anonymous. As with much of American fashion before the mid-1930s, the individual remained submerged within the organization.
A few New York-based custom designers had important reputations during the 1920s and early 30s, such as Sophie Gimbel of Saks Fifth Avenue, Sally Milgrim, and Jessie Franklin Turner. By far the larger number, however, became known by name in the later 1930s and during the war years. People such as Fira Benenson of Bonwit Teller, Emmet Joyce of Saks, Wilson Folmar of Jay-Thorpe, Louise Barnes Gallagher, and Mabel McIlvain Downs enjoyed far more publicity after the fall of Paris in 1940 than they ever had before. Houses with large design staffs, such as Hattie Carnegie and Bergdorf Goodman, began to allow publicity to mention the names of the designers, not just of the house. Carnegie employed several designers at a time to come up with original models for her customers, both in the custom salon and in her ready-to-wearines, which she began to produce in 1928. Many of Carnegie's house designers -Norman Norell, Pauline Trigère, Jean Louis, James Galanos, Gustave Tassell, Claire McCardell -would become well known in their own right. Bergdorf Goodman counted eight designers on its staff in the 1940s, each with a different specialty. Ethel Frankau and Leslie Morris were perhaps the best known: the rest of the staff included Peggy Morris, Mark Mooring, Mary Gleason, Philip Hulitor, Alice Gleason, and John Dean.
Jessie Franklin Turner, who worked for Bonwit Teller in the custom salon from 1916 to 1922, established her own couture business, which was successful for many years even though she did not advertise conspicuously. In her early career she also designed under the name "Winifred Warren, Inc."(42) Another important factor in American fashion during the 1910s and early 1920s was Lucile, an English import via Paris. When she opened her New York house in the early 1910s, she established her reputation by dressing young ballroom dancer Irene Castle, an important style model for many young women at the time. During World War I, she was a leader in encouraging American silk manufacturers to produce better-designed goods and often used American-made silks in her work. In the Tirocchi Archive is an invitation from Lucile Ltd. to view a special "exhibition for dressmakers" from March 9 to 15, probably in 1916, although no year is mentioned. The invitation specified that this would be a "unique" event, "planned and carried out solely because of the present chaotic conditions in the world of fashion due to the war," and would show models "mostly of American-made goods" in aid of the "Made-in-America" movement.(43) She also hired American design talent and purchased sketches from free-lance designers. Howard Greer, later an important figure in Hollywood and Seventh Avenue fashion, spent a brief period as an employee of Lucile.(44)
Old newspapers and trade journals tantalize with names seemingly once well known, but no longer familiar. Ethel Traphagen won first prize for her entries in the 1912-13 New York Times competition to encourage American "style creators" and went on to run an important New York school for fashion design. Mollie O'Hara, another name from the 1910s and 20s, was influential enough in the custom field to have had a fabric named after her by H. R. Mallinson & Company: "Molly-O crepe." Another dressmaker, Marguerite (also called Madame Margé), who thrived between the wars in New York and Chicago, is documented in the Special Collections Library at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York. There are scrapbooks of sketches from the 1920s embellished with trim samples [fig. 87] and newspaper clippings from 1937 discussing her success with a line using Indonesian batik fabrics. Her name appeared often in the American Silk Journal in the 1910s, when her work was featured for its use of American silks. Three times between 1915 and 1918 she won the Gossard Trophy for excellence in dress design from the Fashion Art League of America. H. R. Mallinson's Blue Book of Silks from 1921 displays photographs of Margé models made in Mallinson silks. She seems to have managed to run a successful business between the 1910s and late 1930s and was listed as a customer in the records of Soieries F. Ducharne for the early 1930s, yet her name never appears in Vogue or Harper's Bazaar, nor has her story been published.(45) There were probably dozens of women like her, successful to varying degrees, who survived primarily through word of mouth, as the Tirocchi sisters did, and who in fact preferred to keep a low profile and an exclusive clientele.
The attribution of ready-to-wear designs is even more complicated. Some retailers sold under "house" brand names, with designs either by in-house stylists, free-lance designers, or perhaps by stylists employed by the wholesale firm that actually manufactured the product. The National Cloak and Suit Company, a mail-order manufacturer/retailer of women's and children's ready-to-wear, kept its stylists anonymous. In 1922, Franklin Simon trademarked its store-brand "Bramley" dresses, which were advertised not only in the store's catalogue, but also in the newspapers, with large ads introducing the styles for the new season or holiday wear. The Fall 1923 store catalogue describes these as "Originated by and exclusive with Franklin Simon & Co." and also warns, "Registered in the United States Patent Office -Our rights will be fully protected."(46) Best & Company had its in-house brands, including the 1926 "Shirtmaker" shirtwaist dress, as did Peck & Peck and other department and specialty stores. Best and Franklin Simon were among the first retailers to promote quality cotton dresses for activities other than keeping house. The originators of these styles are currently unknown and may be difficult to identify, given the scarcity of archival material related to defunct retail establishments. This type of everyday garment, adaptable to many of a woman's normal activities, remained popular, with variations, for decades. One wholesale manufacturer noted in the 1960s that "his firm turns out 150 to 200 styles in the course of a season, but works within two basic silhouettes, the sheath and the shirtwaist."(47)
In the 1930s, many previously anonymous ready-to-wear designers began to surface as important names in the fashion field. The occasional newspaper or trade-journal article mentions ready-to-wear designers by name [fig. 88]. "St. Louis' Designing Women," an article from late 1939, is unusually interesting in that it gives the names and occasionally the salaries of some of the best designers in the St. Louis wholesale trade. Grace Ashley, Grace Durocher, Grace Davile, Bessie Recht (who also taught design at Washington University), Dorothy Garrison, and Marian McCoy are named as being among the best designers for the "Junior" market. Grace Davile is said to have earned $10,000 a year from her employer, the Doris Dodson Company. The Donnelly Garment Company in Kansas City (Missouri) started making their "Nelly Don" dresses in 1916. A twentieth-anniversary publicity booklet proudly stated that the company's "designers create Nelly Dons from...exclusive fabrics and original designs" and that they offer "important hidden values...lingerie strap[s], generous hems...and side seam allowance."(48) According to Elizabeth Hawes (admittedly not the most unbiased of observers), few ready-to-wear manufacturers concerned themselves with these types of quality dressmaker details.
Dorothy Shaver, an executive at Lord & Taylor, started in 1932 to campaign strongly for recognition for American designers. She began her promotion with three young women who were fairly new to designing, though not to the trade: Muriel King, Clare Potter, and Elizabeth Hawes. Many others followed, including Tina Leser, Bonnie Cashin, Tom Brigance, Vera Maxwell, and Helen Cookman. In response to a revived nationalist fervor for American design following the outbreak of World War II in Europe, Lord & Taylor opened The Designers' Shop in October 1940. The forerunner of many department-store designer boutiques, it was "a new American effort -featuring 10 of the most successful professional designers in the American fashion field -Frances Troy Stix, Charles Cooper, Bertha Altholz, Karen Stark, Vera Jacobs, Zelma Golden, Fritzie Hannah, Pat Warren, Vera Host and Will Saunders -who will create exclusive dresses for Lord & Taylor."(49)
Harper's Bazaar, Mademoiselle, Vogue, Fortune, Life; each of these magazines carried articles in the 1940s celebrating American fashion creators. Harper's Bazaar listed its top ten American wholesale designers in a feature entitled "They Have Designs on You," found in the issue of September 15, 1940. Vincent Monte-Sano of Monte-Sano and Pruzan, Nettie Rosenstein, Maurice Rentner, Jane Derby, Norman Norell and Jean-Louis Berthault of Hattie Carnegie, Anthony Blotta, Stella Brownie of Fox-Brownie, and Bruno of Spectator Sportswear made the cut. Vogue for February 1, 1940, listed not only wholesale but custom designers and came up with a different group of names. Obviously, there were many successful Americans from whom to choose.
Nettie Rosenstein was a ready-to-wear designer who had two careers in the industry. She retired in 1927 from the firm she had run for almost ten years, returned in 1930 to design for another company, and then re-established herself in 1931 under her own name [fig. 89]. In a New York Times interview for the "Women's Page" in March 1939, Rosenstein is said to have "bid for a restricted but sound patronage."(50) Her work was wholesaled to high-end retail shops, which, as late as 1934, still sold them under the label of the shop, not the name of the designer. As one article explained, retailers "usually endeavored to give their salons the Paris feeling...It would scarcely enhance that feeling if they were to announce that many of their most irresistible dresses were designed by Nettie Rosenstein in West Forty-seventh Street in New York...The name of Rosenstein, let alone being soft-pedalled, is not being pedalled at all."(51)
By the mid-1930s, Hollywood costume designers and the "sunshine culture" of California had proven to be a vital force in American fashion. Many designers either started out or ended up as couturiers in Los Angeles. The clothes that Adrian, Howard Greer, Irene, Travis Banton, and Edith Head put on the American movie screen were seen and absorbed by an enormous audience. Certain trends from film are well known: the Letty Lynton dress, versions of Gone With the Wind dresses [fig. 90], and the broad-shouldered Joan Crawford look created by Adrian. Vogue in 1932 acknowledged that "The Hollywood influence -credit Marlene Dietrich in "Shanghai Express" -has invaded Paris at last. The film was first shown at Mrs. Fellowes [sic] house in Paris, after which she appeared at almost every party in a different arrangement of coq...."(52) Several years later the New York Times observed that period dramas "had a particular impact on the mode" in a rotogravure feature illustrating actresses in costume for several upcoming films in 1938.(53) Articles from the Times, the Christian Science Monitor, Fortune, and Nation's Business attested to the growing importance of West Coast creators and markets in the overall American fashion scene.(54)
The casual outdoor California lifestyle and the clothes that actors and actresses wore in their personal lives also had an impact on American fashion. Not until Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn appeared in public in men's trousers did it begin to be possible for the average woman to appear in public in pants, although admittedly in restricted situations. Even women such as Amelia Earhart and her fellow female pilots of the late 1920s and 30s (Louise Thaden, Elinor Smith, and Bobbi Trout), who might have been expected to have a reason for appearing in trousers, rarely did so until late in the 1930s. A Hollywood men's tailor named Watson was apparently known for making trouser suits for "Garbo, Dietrich, Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, and all the knowing ones in the movie colony."(55) Bettina Ballard wrote of Marlene Dietrich, a fellow passenger on a transatlantic crossing in 1937, that "she wore slacks and a man's jacket and a fedora all day -the first woman I had ever seen wear pants in public."(56) In contrast, in Paris at the same time, according to Ballard, women went to Creed for the perfect ladylike (skirted) suit.
Stage celebrities appeared in ads for fashionable commodities in the 1910s. Hazel Dawn, star of The Pink Lady on Broadway, was used by H. R. Mallinson & Company in their silk ads of 1915. Many other stars of both stage and silent film followed for both Mallinson and other fabric and garment manufacturers. Irene Castle was an important promotional link for Corticelli Silks during the early 1920s [fig. 91]. "Irene Castle Corticelli Fashions," designedby New York ready-to-wear firms Jesse Woolf & Company, Jacob Rappaport & Company, and Joseph A. Morris & Company, were available at "an exclusive dealer in each city."(57) The new attitude of the late 1930s toward original American design is shown in a newspaper ad for Best & Company from October 24, 1938. Day and evening dresses in "The Algerian Silhouette, sponsored by Gertrude Lawrence" featured a draped front and the proud claim, "Introduced by Best's."(58)
Clothes for actresses on the Broadway stage were often provided by well known dressmaking establishments in New York. Joseph, one of the more exclusive custom dressmakers in New York (producing both copies and/or adaptations of Paris models and original designs), made the costumes Louise Gunning wore in a play entitled The Balkan Princess.(59) Madame Margé received the Mallinson Cup for excellence in stage costume design for clothing Marilyn Miller of Ziegfield Follies fame. Hattie Carnegie outfitted Gertrude Lawrence for her American stage appearances. Even Mainbocher, on his return to New York from Paris after the outbreak of war in 1939, made clothes for Broadway plays. This added a certain prestige all around: publicity for the designer, the actress, the play. It may have also been financially important, although it is unclear whether the designers provided the clothes for free, counting on the advertising value of the publicity, or were paid for their efforts. Hawes states in Fashion is Spinach that many producers expected to pay low prices for wardrobes for their stars and that most stars expected wardrobes that would strengthen their stardom, not their characterization.
Conversely, although some couturiers did create wardrobes for Hollywood films, it was more often the Hollywood costume designer who made a name in films and then established a business in custom or ready-to-wear design. Adrian is perhaps the best known of these, but there were many others. Omar Kiam actually started in New York's wholesale dress business, went into film work, and then returned to New York to design for Ben Reig. Howard Greer was courted by the Celanese Corporation in 1937 to create an "exclusive collection, in Celanese fabrics, designed by an American and specially conceived for the great American sun season" [fig. 92].(60) Joset Walker, by 1940 the designer for wholesale dress manufacturer David Goodstein, had learned her craft ten years before, first in Saks Fifth Avenue's "Theatrical Department," then at RKO Studios in Hollywood. Norman Norell worked in film and stage costuming before joining Hattie Carnegie in 1928. It seems likely that the ease of movement between Hollywood or Broadway and Seventh Avenue fostered a kind of cross-pollination of ideas between the East and West Coasts. Perhaps this is one factor in the eventual recognition of an American style.
Much of the literature about fashion in the pre-World War II decades discusses the issue of exclusivity. Fault is found with expensive ready-to-wear clothing because, in order to be financially successful, a garment had to be sold in multiples, thereby increasing the probability that a woman might see someone else wearing the dress she had purchased. Importers of model gowns from Paris also came in for criticism since their goal was to sell enough copies of a model gown to pay for the cost of importing it. Tied closely to exclusivity was originality. Original models designed in this country were common enough in advertisements. Most importers of Paris models also developed original designs in-house. Advertisements in fashion magazines indicate that even small dressmakers knew the value of the words "exclusive" and "original" in relation to their wares. In Providence, for example, Anna Tirocchi's stationery in the mid 1920s listed "line, color, detail, distinction, individuality" as attributes of her own business. The question in the fashion press seemed to be, however, whether American design was indeed original or followed Paris's lead so closely as to be indistinguishable, except for that extra degree of elegance and sophistication that was supposed to mark a Paris original.
For as long as there have been fashion creators, there have been fashion copiers. Fashion literature in the first half of the twentieth century is awash in denunciations of "design piracy," whether the pirating is the unauthorized copying of Paris styles by American manufacturers and custom dressmakers or of expensive American ready-to-wear by lower-price manufacturers. Organizations such as the French Chambre Syndicale and the American Fashion Originators Guild attempted to fight design piracy and extend copyright protection to apparel and textile designs.
The early 1910s saw the first concerted efforts on the part of the French couture to halt the copying of their designs. Agreements between London's Royal Worcester Corset Company and couturiers in Paris and Vienna kept the former from giving any advance information of the "new curve" in its Spring line of corsets and so made headlines in Women's Wear in early 1912.(61) In February and April 1912, leading Paris couturiers held their Spring models back from both the Auteuil and Longchamps races, traditionally events of great importance to both the designers and their customers. The mannequins attended the races, but wore furs from the winter collections. The reason given was specifically to keep the clothes from being "immediately copied by the smaller houses and wholesale dressmakers, who only vulgarize the models."(62)
Several months later, the New York Times also carried an article essentially denouncing the counterfeiting of Paris couture. In a practice that has parallels today, labels carrying the names of French couture and millinery houses were imported to the States and used in American-made products.(63) Jacques Worth and Paul Poiret headed attempts over the next four years to control how purchasers of models from the top couture houses were allowed to use them. In July 1914, the Couturier's Defense Syndicate was established with Worth, Poiret, Premet, Chéruit, Rodier, Paquin, Callot, Lucien Vogel et Compagnie, and Atuyer, Bianchini, Férier as the first subscribers. A tiered pricing system was suggested with the purpose of adding to the standard cost of a couture gown a copyright fee, payable by business customers who wished to reproduce the design for sale. Wholesalers and retailers were barred from the major couture openings unless specifically invited.(64) These moves were so controversial that the Times printed both the articles of the Syndicate and a speech by Poiret on the subject of design protection in January 1916, by which time it appeared that the Syndicate was near collapse.(65) The Times reported that many of the smaller houses had refused to abide by the Syndicate's rules with the result that the reputations of couturiers such as "Arnold, Germaine, Bulloz, Patou, Chanel, Royant, Bernard, and Mme Groult, Poiret's sister" grew rapidly.(66) The same article went on to state that
these houses have already begun to show collections privately to the American buyers, so anticipating the openings" of the syndicate houses, which are mostly set for the first week of February. Realizing that no monopoly of styles was possible, these early birds boldly struck out on new lines, with the certainty of getting such a start on the former headliners that the latter would be compelled to follow where they used to lead.
It is a measure of how important the couture industry was to France that this debate could be sustained during some of the worst months of the Great War.
In spite of the failure of the couture establishment to maintain a united front at this time, it seems that some of the rules were generally implemented. Another spate of press coverage in the early 1920s suggests that efforts were made to prohibit photographing or sketching a Paris model even at public social events or private showings for fear that the circulation or publication of the illustration would enable copying. In addition, admittance to the couture openings was limited to those who "are well known and have been honest in former transactions."(67)
In 1921, for the first time, American garment manufacturers began to discuss seriously the need for adopting Paris-style regulations to protect their own products. A member of the Cloak, Suit and Skirt Manufacturers Protective Association stated that "the garment in a new style is merely an idea, and its value depends upon how good that idea is... Therefore, the garment possesses something besides its intrinsic value, and it would be entirely proper for the manufacturers to get together and agree to protect their designs and to bar out those who rob them of what is probably the most valuable part of their product."(68) From this time on, a variety of trade organizations appear, lobbying for tighter or looser controls on copying, depending upon which side they represented: the copied or the copiers.
It is sometimes thought that the crusade against style piracy was fought by the Paris couture solely against the American ready-to-wear industry; however, it appears that the first court case to offer "protection to a sartorial idea or conception as such" was contested by Madeleine Vionnet in Paris, December 1921, against two smaller Parisian houses. Miler Soeurs and Henriette Bondreaux were accused of copying Vionnet originals and selling them to Franklin Simon, Bergdorf Goodman, and Saks Fifth Avenue.(69) December 1922 saw additional claims by Vionnet and others "of the most famous Paris couturiers" that piracy was rampant within the French industry.(70) Two years later, the couturiers were joined by other luxury-goods manufacturers in forming the Association for the Defense of Plastic and Applied Arts.(71) Elizabeth Hawes recounts her own activities as a clandestine sketcher of Paris models in the 1920s in Fashion is Spinach, implicating not only French copyists, but also American and European wholesalers and retailers. Copying was so lucrative for everyone -except the originator of the dress - that in spite of repeated efforts by the couture and other luxury industries to curb it, it remained a serious plague throughout the 1930s [figs. 93-94].(72)
Despite the apparent interest in the topic in the early 1920s, it took some time for the French complaint -that copyists hurt business by making new ideas commonplace -to take hold in the American industry. Maurice Rentner, an important New York manufacturer of high-end ready-to-wear from the 1910s, spearheaded the establishment of the Fashion Originators Guild in 1933. From twelve original members, it had grown by the end of its first year to sixty members, all high-price manufacturers. The Guild established a Design Registration Bureau following the French lead and asked retailers for "Declarations of Cooperation" in which they "agreed not to buy or sell copies of styles originated by Guild members" [fig. 95].(73) By late 1935, the Guild was being sued by the Federal Trade Commission for restraint of trade and warring in the press with retailers, particularly department stores, and with the Popular Price Dress Manufacturers Group Inc., the trade organization of moderate and budget dress wholesalers.(74) Ultimately, the Guild was forced to back down.
This was not, however, the end of efforts to protect original designs. Magazine and newspaper ads in the late 1930s, both those of manufacturers and of department or specialty stores, often added a copyright line at the bottom of the page, hoping in this way to at least provide legal recourse if garments were copied. A New York Times Bonwit Teller ad from 1938 with a copyright statement at the bottom also had captions for two of the dresses that read, "Like Molyneux" and "Suggesting Mainbocher."(75) One author suggested as the reason for the rise of wholesale dress manufacturers in St. Louis that "nowhere else...are style piracy regulations being as effectively enforced as here...The Style Piracy Bureau of the Associated Garment Industries of St. Louis has the co-operation of the Ladies Garment Workers Union. Members...refuse to work on a design that has been adjudged by a constantly sitting trial board to be a copy of another maker"s design."(76) A 1930s study of the dress industry by Helen Everett Meiklejohn, quoted by Bernard Roshco in his 1963 book The Rag Race, summed up the issue. "It is this close relationship between copying and adaptation which suggests that the property right inherent in a dress design is difficult to establish and to protect...Dress designers conform to fashion trends and the most brilliant designers are 'adapters'."(77) Roshco wrote of his own time: "A manufacturer of low-priced dresses offers his idea of ethical copying: It's fair to exercise one's judgement of style by copying from higher-priced firms, but another matter to copy from direct competitors."(78)
It is difficult to evaluate and compare prices between custom and ready-to-wear, since ads and features for made-to-order imported or even American-designed models in Vogue and Harper's Bazar rarely included prices. Store and manufacturer ads for ready-to-wear usually listed prices, however, and the range for ready-to-wear is considerable, even as it is today.
A Vogue article from 1915, "Frocks and Gowns Made To Order," gave estimates from dressmakers on producing day, sports, and evening wear. Vogue cautioned that "the out-of-town reader should perhaps be warned, however, that these are New York prices and that really good work of this kind is very highly paid. The well-known dressmakers of today seldom make even a simple costume for less than $150, and the prices rise from that to $500." The article went on to suggest that careful attention to ready-made clothing could provide the basis for a "smart" wardrobe, but that "when distinction and individuality are required in a dress, however, it is better to have it made to order." Prices quoted from smaller dressmakers for a silk day dress (still New York prices) averaged $50 to $60.(79)
Elizabeth Hawes explained the pricing of a custom-made dress as of 1938 in Fashion is Spinach. The labor of the workers who made an average garment requiring fifty-five hours of work came to $44. Cutting the fabric and fitting the dress added $16.45. A moderately priced fabric might cost $5 a yard, and an average dress might take seven and a half yards for a total cost of $37.50. In addition, a charge of $16.71 for direct "production overhead, workroom manager"s salary, stockroom costs, muslin, pins, sewing machines..." and $15 for the design had to be added. Hawes estimated that indirect overhead costs such as rent and utilities, sales staff, clerical help, etc., added about a third again to the price of the dress, or $59.61 on her example. This gave a total of $189.27, which Hawes stated would be rounded up to a selling price of $195. A dress or suit requiring more labor or material might easily cost $400.(80) By the late 1930s, when Hawes was writing, it was not only the custom-made dress that might cost upwards of $200, but expensive ready-to-wear as well.
Ready-to-wear pricing must, of course, have followed the same basic structure of computing direct and indirect costs to come up with the price for a dress. In addition, however, ready-to-wear manufacturers had to figure in the hefty markup by the retailer. As Hawes pointed out, "the cheap wholesaler gets his profits by selling a very large volume, multiplying his 50-cent profit over and over again."(81)
A random sampling of prices in Vogue and Harper"s Bazar over three decades indicates that moderate-priced, ready-to-wear silk day dresses could be had for around $29 in the 1910s and 1920s, while the price drops somewhat in the early and mid-1930s before rising again by 1939. During the 1930s, however, the dress was more likely to be made of rayon or acetate than silk. Cottons and linens were less expensive than silk; woolens about the same. Suits and ensembles, coats, and evening dresses were all higher priced. Sportswear was the least expensive category of clothing. In 1915, Spalding sportswear outfits were sold for $75 made-to-order and $35 plus for ready-to-wear. Vogue"s "Seen in the Shops" feature quoted prices of $29.50, $35, and $49.50 for ready-to-wear dresses, while Mazon"s, a company established in 1899 that purchased Paris models to sell "after they have been shown to illustrate the Parisienne modes," offered model sizes only within the range of $20 to $75. Franklin Simon & Company, New York, offered ready-to-wear suits in 1916 at $29.50 or $39.50. In 1924, Best & Company offered ready-made copies of French dresses for $38 and $55. Other retailers in that year advertised ready-to-wear dresses at a wide range of prices: "Queen Make" washable linens, voiles, and ginghams ranged between $7.95 and $13.50, Stewart & Company"s linen dresses could be had at $19.50 or $24.50, and R. H. Macy"s linen frocks at $11.74, $13.74, $14.74 or $16.74. Barbara Lee silk day dresses cost $39.50 with the added attraction that they were "shown exclusively" at one department store only in each city. In 1935, ads for ready-to-wear in Harper"s Bazaar included a Bergdorf Goodman original evening gown for $160, silk sports dresses for tennis and golf from Lord & Taylor for $16.95, and day dresses from Bonwit Teller for $49.75. In addition, Bullock"s Wilshire (Los Angeles) touted authorized copies of an Irene original day dress. Bullock"s copies sold for $35 for linen, $45 for solid-color crepe (whether silk or rayon is not clear), and $55 for printed crepe. The original Irene cost $145. In 1938, Russeks (a New York specialty store) offered a topcoat and suit ensemble for $50, or $25 each for the suit or coat. The following year, "scrupulous copies of our own Paris imports" of six coat styles by Mainbocher, Molyneux, Schiaparelli, Paquin, and two by Alix sold at $135 each. It is unusual to find mentions of copies of an American designer: the Irene day dress is the exception to the rule.(82)
How did pricing in the Tirocchi shop match up with prices for comparable garments elsewhere? A black dress by Premet, purchased in 1924 for $89 from Maginnis & Thomas, importers of French gowns, was sold to a client for $145. The same client purchased a Drécoll gown from the Tirocchis for $125 a few months prior. That gown, too, came from Maginnis & Thomas for a price of $89. A three-piece day ensemble from Callot Soeurs sold in 1925 for $175, a modest markup from its purchase price to the Tirocchis of $140.(83)
As many fashion writers and designers have pointed out, custom dressmakers made their money on clients who ordered several garments at a time and also looked to the same shop for accessories; buying hats, gloves, and handbags to complete their outfits. The woman who came in and ordered a single dress was almost more trouble than her order was worth. The client ledger in the Tirocchi Archive bears this out. Many of the most faithful clients would order several new garments and remodeling of one or two older dresses at the same time.
When the Tirocchi sisters first set up their custom dressmaking business, women of a certain social and economic class expected to spend both time and money on being well dressed. The concern with exclusivity that echoes through magazine and newspaper articles of the 1910s could only work to the benefit of the Tirocchi shop and its Providence competitors. Drawing from the same illustrations of new modes as New York shops, the Tirocchis and their clients could interpret these modes in different color combinations or graft a detail from one design onto the silhouette of another. With her knowledge of the lifestyles and needs of her clients, Anna Tirocchi may also have truly designed garments for them: garments original both in conception and execution and, therefore, truly exclusive.
As the pace of life quickened in the 1920s and ready-to-wear clothing began to be better made and better fitting, many women who formerly had submitted to and even enjoyed the rituals of ordering a custom-made wardrobe began to incorporate ready-to-wear into their lives. As Bergdorf Goodman and Hattie Carnegie did in the 1920s, the Tirocchis began to carry ready-made garments in the shop to augment the custom trade and to encourage clients to spend more of their clothing allowance within the walls of a single shop. Perfumes, hats, handbags, and jewelry were made available. The Tirocchis even stocked imported table linens, catering to yet another need of the social class they served. Still, models from the Paris couturiers were also purchased by Anna Tirocchi to copy and sell.
On a much larger scale than the Tirocchis, most custom dressmakers and department or specialty stores who maintained custom salons depended on the ready-to-wear departments to actually pay the bills. Volume of merchandise sold and the markup on that merchandise were extremely important to the bottom line. Apparently, Bergdorf"s custom salon lost money for the store almost every year after 1929. It was "maintained for prestige," not income.(84) Given the apparent vagaries of Anna Tirocchi"s many business interests, her dressmaking shop perhaps provided her with an elevated social status that she was loath to discard in favor of more profitable, but less grand, ventures.(85)
The Tirocchi dressmaking shop was not unique in its inception or in its demise. All of the tricks and schemes that larger dressmaking concerns and retail shops used to stay abreast of the times and maintain some profitability were used by the Tirocchis. At this time, however, the volume and variety of documentary evidence surviving the closure of the shop remain unique. In total it indicates the need for a reevaluation of American dressmakers and the American dress industry in the first half of the twentieth century.