Who knew that Milwaukee holds a treasure trove of a couturier for some of the icons of fashion history? At Mount Mary College, in their Historic Costume Collection, there are almost 400 original Valentina toiles and garments, as well as personal documents and more. In Milwaukee. I’ve always said that the hidden gems are held in places you’d least expect, and now Milwaukee is on my bucket list.
Valentina was born in 1898, and was orphaned during the Russian revolution, and reportedly was rescued at a train station by George Schlee, who she subsequently married after escaping the country. They were married in Russia in 1920, and emigrated to New York via Paris in 1922. She is shown in the 1925 New York census as a housewife to George and notes herself as a naturalized US citizen. In 1930, she is found living in Manhattan with George, again as a housewife, though reports state she started her business in 1928, with dresses she pulled out of her own closet. Of note, the 1930 census states she is still an alien, and not a US citizen, and she subsequently applied for citizenship in 1932, noting herself again to be a housewife. In 1937, papers laud her for her costumes in the play “Idiot’s Delight.” She costumed a few movies in the early 1950’s, but was most known for the celebrities she dressed, such as Greta Garbo and Lynne Fontanne. (The photo above are of garments from Ms Fontanne’s collection and was worn in Idiot’s Delight.)
Valentina was known for her monochromatic designs, often having a stark monastic look. She costumed many stage shows, including dressing Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story. The drape of the garments is beautiful and so simple in design as to not distract from the wearer. She loved to use opulent fabrics to create a lush effect that had customers flocking to her. She was held at the same level as Claire McCardell would be later, and there are some similarities in their garments, as both created simple garments that were comfortable to wear. Much of the work was hand done and there was not a lot of ornamentation. She truly was the torch bearer for the minimalism that we see today, but would not be popularized until the 1990’s.
Valentina wore her designs and was able to build her business in that way, given her status as a fashion icon of the time. Barry Paris noted in his book Garbo that Garbo and Valentina had a falling out over George in the years before he died, and though they lived in the same apartment building, they created a schedule where they would never run into each other in the lobby. She died in 1989 from Parkinson’s Disease in New York.
Valentina’s name is not as widely known today, being overshadowed by Valentino, who is not only male, but Italian. Her work still deserves to be seen and studied, because she set the bar in many ways for many designers to come.
Photos: Threads Magazine