1950s fashion, designers, sewing patterns, vintage clothing, vintage fashion

Fira Benenson

Spadea 1158, ©1958.

I’m reading a 1940s book about the fashion industry, and am learning all kinds of things about lesser known (now) designers. Case in point: Fira Benenson. I’ve seen Fira Benenson patterns before. They are generally 1950s Spadeas, sometimes very early 1960s, but I’ve never heard of her name outside of this. Turns out she’s an interesting person.

I always thought, given her first name, that she had to be Italian, but she was actually Russian. She was a driving force for Bonwit Teller and got her start as the director of imports there before World War II. During the war years, she was the one who designed Bonwit Teller’s collections. She was one of the first retail buyers to return to Paris after the war.

She was very much a team player, saying that no designer designs in a vacuum. “A designer works with the assistance of many people — the fitters, operators, fabric people and her other workers. I would be helpless without my staff.” This is so true, as you’d be surprised how many designers can’t draw, sew or make patterns. Many of them, of course, would never admit it publicly.

Fira Benenson evening dress with jacket in silk shantung, 1942. Photo: New York Daily News.

Ms. Benenson was noted for elegance. She used rich fabrics and embellished with embroidery, shirring, tucking and intricate seams. In 1941, she used a rounded shoulder technique she terms the “hug shoulder” to accentuate women’s curves. That same season, she showed a “soupcatcher” waist, with horizontal looped draping below the waist that created a shelf -hence the soupcatcher name. It was basically a front pannier and based on a Victorian fashion, and created a beautiful, draped effect that accentuated a tiny waist.

Fira Benenson evening dress, 1957. Photo: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

“Miss B”, as her staff called her, was soft spoke and gracious, always wearing black, and generally a shirred dress of her own creation. She always wore a huge black pearl left to her by her mother, surrounded by ribbons of diamonds. She was born in Russia in 1898, the child of the Czar Nicolas’ banker, and came to the United States in 1921, after the death of her mother. She opened her own dress shop and was recruited by Bonwit Teller in 1934 to head up their Salon de Couture. This required frequent trips to Paris to view the collections, as she did not design at this point. She only began designing again in 1940 when the war made it necessary. She opened her own shop again in 1948, going into the wholesale business. She maintained both couture and ready to wear collections, as she felt that women wanted clothes that looked “made to measure” to be widely available.

In private life, Ms. Benenson was the Countess Fira Ilinska, married to a Polish nobleman. She spoke seven languages, collected Belgian blown glass, and was known for her dinner parties, where she did much of the prep and cooking herself. The count and countess celebrated 30 years of marriage in March 1961 with a posh dinner party at their apartment that included many of the same guests who originally attended their wedding, including diplomats, artists, writers and businessman. Four months later, the count died in Paris from heart disease. He was 64. Ms. Beneson died in 1977 in the New York apartment she had called home for many years.

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