Helen Lee created some of the cutest children’s patterns published during the 1950s and 1960s. She was a designer of international fame who partnered with Sears & Roebuck in 1965 on their popular Winnie the Pooh line, seen in their store for years. She was an icon of children’s fashion for decades.
Ms. Lee was from Knoxville, Tennessee, where she studied psychology. Her little girls were her muses. First note of her collections was in 1948, though she may have started just before that. By the 1950s, she was a top children’s designer. She held the belief that little girls associate themselves with their clothes from a very young age and that by age 7, could not separate themselves from their dress. She said that little girls should not be dressed in blue jeans, even if it meant that mothers had to iron ruffles every day. Her feeling was that if a girl was complimented on her dress, she would think positively of herself and feel pretty, but if she was criticized, it would be hurtful, creating bad feelings about herself. The thought of the day was that blue jeans were better for children, because mothers didn’t want them to get their good clothing dirty, but Ms. Lee held that children would get dirty regardless.
Her 1964 McCall’s pattern line was inspired by her toddler granddaughter Hillary Ball, daughter of journalist Ian Ball, who walked the runway in one of her shows. She stated that the entire line was inspired by Hillary. Her collection of that line, called “Little Craft”, and designed for preschoolers from ages two to six, had no frippery like loops or dangles, to keep them from getting caught on playground equipment. By this time, she included rompers and bell bottom trousers in her collections. For older girls that year, she said jumpers and pinafores were “cliche” and created A line Easter dresses with matching capes, and pleated skirts. She was no longer showing what she called “grandmother’s dresses” full of frills and ruffles — called this because “only a grandmother could keep up” with the care required for all the bows and ruffles. Oh, how times had changed.
The late sixties saw Ms. Lee shift, saying that the department stores were full of Carnaby-Street inspired clothing that didn’t go together. She produced a sportwear line of dresses, jumpers, skirts and sweaters that were more adult-like but stopped, per usual, at size 14. She veered away from cottons and used man-made fibers that looked upscale but were machine washable. All of the separates went together for a great mix and match look.
Ms. Lee shunned pastel colors, calling them “propaganda started by adults.” She felt that children have such wonderful coloring that they can wear any color, so she preferred oranges (as seen above), yellows, browns, reds and black. She preferred cottons, but used a lot of velvet for special occasion dresses. When asked about the daily ironing that cottons necessitated, she said “a mother who cares wouldn’t mind.” Ouch.
Ms. Lee won the Coty Award in 1953, and later the Ribbon Award for design, as well as the Neimann Marcus award. She had international shows as well as shows in the US, even selling in Russia in the 1960s. Caroline Kennedy wore her clothing. She designed for not only Sears & Roebuck but also for Danskin, and two other companies who she never disclosed. She not only designed patterns for McCall’s, but also for Spadea and Prominent Designer. She travelled internationally looking for inspiration, and planned her fabrics a year in advance. In later years, her daughter Jenny, who had studied art, helped her with the Winnie the Pooh line at Sears. The last mention of a fashion line from her was in 1977, where it was mentioned that she planned to put out a line of clothing for boys. It’s not clear if she ever did. She died in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1991 after a series of strokes. She was 82.