designers, vintage fashion

The Couture Group

While researching Donald Brooks for the previous post, I found that he was part of “the couture group.” Although I had heard of FOGA before, I hadn’t heard of this specific group, so I went looking.

The New York Dress Institute was a group of designers which numbered 1300 New York designers, and the Couture Group was a subset of top designers. The Dress Institute was the sponsor of the twice yearly Fashion Week, and dozens of designers showed there. First mention of the group is in 1945, but the Dress Institute was created in 1941, with the encouragement of the Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, in order to encourage people to buy American Fashion. It was much better known starting in 1946. This likely was due to the devastation of Paris’ fashion industry during the war years, and Americans attempting to establish themselves at the forefront of fashion.

In 1946, the designers numbered 19, but it grew over the course of time. The original 19 were: Hansen Bang, Anthony Blotta, Hattie Carnegie, Fox-Brownie, David M. Goldstein, Joseph Halpert, Anna Miller, Clare Potter, Jo Copeland, Ben Reig, Ren-Eta, Nettie Rosenstein, Herbert Sondheim, Spectator Sports, Claire McCardell, Pauline Trigere, Samuel Kass, Adele Simpson and Joseph Whitehead. By 1948, there were 30 members, all “high style, high price ready to wear manufacturers.” The group grew over the years to include Ceil Chapman, Mollie Parnis, Tina Reser, Ben and many more. Some of the members were also creators of French Haute Couture, such as Christian Dior.

Though the Couture Group definitely set the trends for fashion, they also seemed to be involved with the price of fashion as well, especially in the early 50s. They released statements seasonally in 1950-51 stating that the prices of their clothing would not rise, even if the government changed or even froze the prices of fabrics. Members of the Couture Group also contributed to underwriting the cost of Fashion Week (then known as Press Week) in New York, to the tune of $3000 each in 1952. That would be about $49,000 now, meaning the show cost about $1.5 to put on. That was a LOT of money, and though the couture designers showed collections, there were over 100 shows total to be seen during the week.

In 1966, the New York Dress Institute merged with the American Designers’ Group, which had been started in 1962 by a former chairman of the Couture Group. It was renamed the New York Couture Business Council, and in 1976 was again renamed New Directions.

1950s fashion, sewing patterns, sexual abuse

Birdcage Waist

Butterick 8227, ©1957

I listed this pattern in the shop the other day, and found the waistline interesting. They call it a “birdcage” waistline. It’s a cummerbund waistline that included large tabs — like belt loops for a cummerbund.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. I love cummerbund waistlines. I think they give a wonderful silhouette, whether they are on a party dress or a sheath, but belt loop looking things? Hmm. That being said, View A is pretty fabulous, so I could be convinced. I want to see this in person.

In looking around, it appears that Mollie Parnis did a “birdcage jacket” in 1956 that was a short jacket that stopped above the waistline. Her collection of that season had a lot of high waisted dresses, so I’m sure that looked nice, and have seen patterns with that effect. Here’s a photo:

© Photo: Courier-Post, Camden, NJ

Pauline Trigere did a “bird cage” jacket in that same year, but it sounds confusing to me: “…for girls so reed-thin that there is no risk of a pregnant look. The bird cage’s big pouf is caught in just below the knees. She uses it in everything — coats, dresses, even headdresses made of veiling tied at the top and around the shoulders with velvet ribbon.” The jacket was hipbone length. I can’t envision what the look was.

Dallas Dickey designed a birdcage jacket in 1957 that was just one inch bands of linen, spaced an inche apart, and sewn only at the shoulder and hip, over a fitted sheath dress. The effect was to look like you were wearing a blouson jacket, but then up close “the sheath shape under the spaced bands is as visible as a parakeet.” These were done in different color versions, with the designer’s favorite being a gold jacket over a red, white or black sheath. This sounds interesting, and I’d love to see a real life version.

I did find a version of this particular dress, described in a New Jersey newspaper, and done by Mr. Sidney. These were full skirted dresses though, worn with more than one petticoat and striped around the waist in contrast to the vertically striped skirts.

I’m not sure what the inspiration was in the mid-50s for all these birdcage looks. If you have any ideas, drop it in the comments.

Celebrity, Hollywood, vintage clothing

Valentina

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