The man in that picture is Wesley Tann. He created maternity dresses for Jacqueline Kennedy! He also dressed Leontyne Price. He sold his daywear designs at Neiman Marcus and other highly regarded Manhattan department stores and he was the first black man to open a fashion salon on Seventh Avenue. Does this surprise you?
One of the most interesting things that I’ve learned about the 20th Century custom clothing business in New York City is that there were dozens and dozens (probably even hundreds) of independent dressmakers. White women, black women and even black men set up shop in small rented workrooms in buildings along important streets in the fashion district like Seventh Avenue and Madison Avenue. They met with their clients, sketched their designs and created custom wardrobes, very often inspired by the latest designs from Paris. They were in business for years, and a number of the designers I’ve come across sewed for some very elite clients, but I’d never heard of their businesses.
You can look through the 1950s or 1960s want ads of the New York Times and see dozens of ads for seamstresses, finishers, drapers, etc. These businesses provided work for hundreds of people.
But back to Tann. He was born in 1928. His mother taught him to sew as he was growing up in North Carolina. When his parents died, he became the ward of Adam Clayton Powell—an old family friend. This introduced Tann to a completely new world in Washington, DC. Tann received an excellent high school education and trained at the Hartford Art School of Fashion. He had a strong business sense (and unlike a number of other independent designers) he managed his business well. His business was profiled, along with some other smaller fashion designers in the New York Times on April 9, 1963. His work was featured in the fashion section of the Times more than a dozen times.
Tann chose to leave the fashion industry in the early 1970s. He’d been one of a small handful of African American designers in business for years, and he was successful–but the difficulties of dealing with the racism of some of the local suppliers was one of the factors Tann mentioned when he told interviewers about closing his business.
Tann began a second career as an etiquette coach in his hometown of Newark, NJ. He taught workshops on home sewing along with etiquette classes for the young people of Newark. Tann died in 2012.
Sometimes you drop the ball as a researcher, unfortunately. I never got the chance to meet Mr. Tann or discuss his work, but this was my own fault. I followed a trail of 1960s fashion breadcrumbs through the pages of the New York Times and Women’s Wear Daily while I was knee deep in graduate school and I mailed a letter to Mr. Tann to request an interview but I didn’t get the chance to follow up with a phone call or go the extra mile to connect with him and he passed away about a year later. Going the extra mile is essential when you are reaching people for interview requests. You can’t be shy, you just have to take a step out there and meet people. Missing a chance to meet Mr. Tann taught me that lesson.
I bet he would have been a fascinating man to talk with about the fashion industry! Details about his career and educational background, when held next to Ann Lowe’s are especially interesting. Lowe’s formal dresses sold for around $500 at Henri Bendel , and in a different department at the same store, Tann’s daywear sold for around $100. Tann had the educational background necessary to run the financial side of his business effectively. That was one of Ann Lowe’s weak spots. They worked within blocks of each other and they both left the industry at the same time, although Lowe’s final shop closed in the early 1970s because of financial strain and illness.
One day, I would love to find out how many African American fashion designers were designing clothing at major New York department stores during the 1950s and 1960s. I know of four so far, and I’m planning to tell you about some of the others in later articles, but Tann is the only man in the bunch.
Although I missed my opportunity to meet Wesley Tann, I hope to interview some of his family and acquaintances and focus on Tann’s work with a scholarly article in the future. He really deserves to be known.
The articles listed below are worth reading, although let me warn you that the first article will make you sad that you also missed out on an opportunity to meet Mr. Tann. He must have been quite a character!
There will be a lot of articles here about the woman sitting down on the left– Ann Lowe. You could say that Ann Lowe is the reason that this site even exists. Her story is probably the best example of hidden fashion history that I could help to bring to light and she will be all over this blog because there’s just so much to tell you about her. Even the bright silk braid at the top of this page is a detail from one of her dresses (and I’m a lucky girl to own this dress–even if it doesn’t fit me!)
In some books and articles, you may run across her name listed as “Ann Cole Lowe”. That is incorrect. It’s just “Ann Lowe”. While Cole was her mother’s maiden name, and it appeared in Lowe’s death notice and obituary (which were not written by direct family members) Cole was not a name that Lowe ever used, either personally or professionally, and it never appears in any of her census information, business dealings or social security information as a middle name.
So, who is Ann Lowe and why do I want to tell you all about her? You might not recognize her name or her face, but there’s a good chance that you’ve seen at least one of the wedding dresses that she designed over her sixty year career and you can recognize the woman who wore that gown in an instant:
At the top of Lowe’s career in the 1950s and 1960s, she operated custom salons on Madison Avenue, where she created custom debut, wedding and special occasion gowns for the women of high society and created dresses for the top department stores in the country.
But that’s just one little part of her story. She was raised in rural Alabama at the turn of the 20th century and became a leading designer for the women of the most elite families in Tampa, Florida before moving to New York City in 1928 to chase her dream of becoming a top fashion designer. I’ll give you a little spoiler—she made it.
Ann’s story is like a good book— and her biography is something I’m working on right now, so bits and pieces of Lowe’s story will turn up on this site often while I’m writing the rest of it in the BIG project. You’ll be able to check the Ann Lowe heading in the sidebar to fast forward to the latest installment.
If you are a bit impatient to find out a little more, check out these links:
“In this day of high prices I wonder if the average homemaker realizes the possibilities of the homely flour and sugar sacks?” Minnie L. Church, home economist, 1921.
The term “Gunny Sack Dress” may bring to mind a droopy and ill fitting garment of coarse cloth worn by poverty stricken children on a prairie, this image is reinforced by a Time magazine interview with
a manager from Pillsbury Flour in 1946, “They used to say that when the wind blew across the South you could see our trade name on all the girls’ underpants.” Indeed, during fabric shortages brought on by World War II, a number of United States families turned to an unusual material, the cotton commodity bag. This replaced heavily rationed cotton yard goods for the home sewing needs of their families. Cotton bag sewing was both a frugal move and a patriotic one. A newspaper column from May 1944 explained, “ Best of all is the patriotic spirit you show when you salvage fabrics. The housewife who converts cotton bags into the many useful items they are capable of becoming under the magic of willing hands and minds not only serves herself, but conserves essential fabrics for her country.” The Textile Bag Manufacturers Association proclaimed, “A yard saved, was a yard gained for victory!”
A traditional discussion of commodity bag sewing begins with the Great Depression and ends around World War II, but the origins of this sewing custom are more than 100 years old. As early as the 19th century, fabric was used in the production of commodity bags for the grain industry as improvements in sewing machine technology allowed for more efficient production of fabric bags with strong seams. Women were sewing common household items from the fine bleached muslin and coarse burlap gunny sacks of the 1890s, the yarn dyed striped and gingham checked sacks of the 1920s, and the colorful dress print and brightly dyed solid percale bags which were popular from the mid 1930s to the early 1960s.
After this time, paper replaced cotton throughout the bag manufacturing industry. The National Cotton Council’s Cotton Bag Sewing Queen Contests of the late fifties and early sixties were intended to slow this crossover to paper and maintain a certain amount of nationwide demand for the cotton bag at a time when bag manufacturers were eager to move to the use of a less expensive alternative. The bottom eventually fell out of the artificial demand for cotton commodity bags during the early 1960s and bag manufacturers switched in large numbers to the paper commodity bag.
The earliest bags were made from burlap (jute) and osnaburg, a coarse cotton fabric. A 1933 booklet from the US Department of Agriculture describes the benefits of using cotton:
“Cotton bags make attractive packages; they supply a suitable surface for brand names and make possible effective advertising; they are durable and little affected by moisture; they represent minimum tare weight; and they have a high salvage value.”
These cotton bags also provided a strong boost to the American Cotton industry. At its peak, 1,283 million yards of cotton fabric were used in commodity bags, “and accounted for 8.0% of the cotton goods production and 4.5% of total cotton consumption in the U.S. in 1946.”
A 1921 issue of American Cookery presented the value of commodity bag sewing in this way:
“In homes where little folks are growing up, not a scrap of sacking need be wasted, for each sack takes the place of an equal quantity of muslin, since there are so many necessary little garments to be made. The sacking, while not fine in quality, is most serviceable for drawers, petticoats, underwaists, etc. These garments may be made plain or have a touch of crochet or torchon lace for the trimming.”
In 1927, three yards of dress print cotton percale (the typical amount of fabric needed for an average size adult dress) could cost sixty cents when purchased from the Sears and Roebuck catalog. Three yards of gingham dress goods could cost forty cents. In comparison, three yards of dress quality gingham used in Gingham Girl Flour sacks from the George P. Plant Milling Company could be salvaged after the use of two or three one hundred pound bags of flour. The Plant Milling Company from St. Louis, Missouri began to offer their baking flour in red and white yarn dyed gingham sacks around 1925. Label information was printed on each bag with water-soluble vegetable inks, to simplify the removal of the logo.
Throughout the years, women improved upon methods of removing company logos and related text from each sack. Before commodity bag manufactures were aware of the widespread repurposing of their products, logos were printed with strong inks and the removal process could be time consuming:
“After ripping the sacks apart, she washed and bleached and washed, and it generally had to be done several times before they were thoroughly clean, but when she obtained that result she added to the rinsing water a very little starch…”
By the time the Textile Bag Manufactures Association published Sewing with Cotton Bags in 1933, preparing a textile bag for reuse had been simplified. “The ease with which printing ink may be removed from cotton bags” they explained, “depends on the kind of ink that has been used. Under ordinary circumstances, it is sufficient to cover the inked places with lard or soak them in kerosene overnight. Then wash out in lukewarm water.” The use of kerosene as a cleaning product is hazardous, and could create a deadly explosion from the smallest spark. Therefore, it was a noticeable development in the late 1930s when removing the logo became as quick and easy as soaking the cloth in warm water to remove a paper label.
Once the printing was removed, the chain stitching was pulled away from the side of the bag and the fabric was starched and ironed. A one hundred pound bag of chicken feed became a 36” X 44” piece of cloth, a little more than one yard of fabric. A Life Magazine profile of the Martin family from rural Maryland described their homemade sack clothing in the early 1930s:
“Around this time feed sacks were beginning to come in print patterns as well as in white and when they were empty of chicken mash they were filled up with Martins. One feed sack made a dress for a small Martin, two or more for a larger Martin.”
A typical rural family with a handful of chickens might take a month or so to collect enough cotton bags for a garment, but families that raised chickens on a larger scale could have a full supply of yard goods at their fingertips at all times. A farmer’s wife described their family’s commodity bag usage in the book, Feedsack Fashion:
“We had two big chicken houses and used fourteen sacks of feed every week. My husband got most of the sacks. He always tried to get two or three of the same pattern so we would have enough to make something. He did a pretty good job of picking them out.”
During the middle of the 1930s, feedsacks became colorful and filled with bright patterns. Although several companies seem to take credit for this phenomenon, the Percy Kent Bag Company’s Ken-Print collection may have been the earliest.
Feed companies began to notice that while a husband may have little preference in the brand of egg mash fed to his chickens, if his wife needed a specific pattern to match a feedback that she already owned, her husband began to demonstrate a preference. Suddenly, feed companies were being encouraged to use the latest dress print bags and feed supply stores were turned into fabric stores, to the disdain of one feed salesman interviewed in 1948 who said, “Years ago, they used to ask for all sorts of feeds, special brands you know. Now they come over and ask me if I have an egg mash in a flowered percale. It ain’t natural.”
Feed sacks may have looked like dress fabric, but they were stacked in store piles with little fanfare and employees were surprised by requests to move several hundred pound bags of chicken feed to get to the perfect dress print pattern. One man remembered trips to the feed store as a teenager when it was important to run this errand with several friends because, “his mother’s preferred patterns would always be on the bottom, so he and his “buddies” would have to hoist sacks until they secured the patterns his mother wanted.”Once the fabric was prepared, there was very little difference between a length of feedsack dress percale and a length of dress percale purchased in a store as a new yard good. The Percy Kent Bag Company hired top textile designers from Europe and New York City to create stylish prints with colorfast dyes.
When the country went to war in the 1940s, domestic fabric production was put on hold while textile companies created goods for the use of the military. Textile rationing during World War II did not originally apply to feed sacks, which were classified as “industrial” textile products. During the height of war production restrictions, hundreds of colorful dress prints were available at the rural feed store, providing a wider variety of patterns than any store carrying traditional yard goods at that time.
In 1943, the United States War Production Board standardized bag sizes into six types ranging from 2 to 100 pounds in an effort to reduce waste. The production board approved pattern books for release to the home front. One mother made her young daughter’s entire wardrobe from feed sacks during the war, “the war effort took all of the fabric on the market.” She told an interviewer, “you could buy very little printed fabric.”
The availability of yard goods began to improve for rural shoppers during the spring of 1945. After the war, the child accompanied her mother to a department store that was fully stocked to pre-war levels and pointed to bolts of traditional yard goods in the window,” Oh mom, look at those pretty feed sacks!”
By the early 1950s, popularity of the dress print bag began to fade. Traditional yard goods were becoming more accessible all over the country and the rural lifestyle that enabled families to use dozens of one hundred pound chicken feed sacks in a year began to disappear. The cotton industry began to lose some of their most lucrative customers as bag companies began to make the switch to the multiwall paper sack. This new method was less expensive for them to produce, and more effective in protecting the contents inside. To slow this changeover, the National Cotton Council began to sponsor exciting contests in every state in the country to encourage women to become the “National Cotton Bag Sewing Queen.”
Contests took place at state fairs and were advertised along with pattern booklet giveaways in rural magazines like Farm Journal. Regionally, the prizes included expensive sewing machines and even automobiles, with the chance to move on to the national competition and win trips to Hollywood complete with movie studio tours and shopping sprees.
The Cotton Council partnered with some of the leading pattern companies of the time and released a final wave of pattern books encouraging the use of cotton bags to create dresses styled in the latest fashions. Dozens of categories were established (children’s wear, women’s wear, household curtains and table linens, etc.) and the main fabric in each entry needed to be a cotton commodity bag. Any kind of trimming could be used as decoration.
The feed sack dress in the collection of the National Museum of American History (object ID: 1992.0102.04) created by Mrs. Dorothy Overall for a 1956 sewing contest sponsored by the National Cotton Council is completely different. It is fashionably designed with a cinched waist and a full pleated skirt in the style of the mid-fifties. It features an organdy lining and “machine quilting with a synthetic silver sewing thread.” This dress earned second place in a regional tier of the “Cotton Bag Sewing Queen” contest (Figure 3) and may not resemble anything that comes to mind when discussing clothing made from chicken feed sacks.
In an attempt to get their entries noticed in the Sewing Queen competitions and duplicate high fashion garments, the contestants added flashy trimmings whenever possible. The Dorothy Overall dress is lined in black organdy, a luxury fabric at that time which would never be used to line a traditional feed sack dress. If a farmer’s wife had a dress length of organdy lying around to line a dress, they would have made the dress from that organdy and lined it (if they needed a lining) with the feed sack. The silver thread used in this dress is also a clue to its status as a showpiece. The dress is a showpiece, but as an example of the commodity bag sewing tradition, it only tells a small part of the story.
A resourceful spirit was the key to a comfortable American household filled with food, clothing and home decorations during the first fifty years of the twentieth century. Looking back with a modern eye, where a finished garment (most likely produced in a developing nation by poorly paid workers) can be purchased from a store at a fraction of the price of its cloth, it is a challenge to put yourself in the place of that rural woman with several family members to clothe, but no budget for store bought clothing or new yard goods to sew these garments at home. For a large portion of lower income families throughout the United States, assistance to expand the family wardrobe came from the commodity cotton bag.
A closing paragraph in a short story from Arthurs Home Magazine from July 1892 explains the phenomenon well, “So, that is the secret of how baby looked so lovely in her flour sack: just a little care, patience and ingenuity on the mother’s part.”
A previous version of this article was published in the Digital Commons@University of Nebraska–Lincoln, as a part of the Textile Society of America’s proceedings from their 2012 conference.
Banning, Jennifer Lynn. Feed Sack Fashions in South Louisiana, 1948-1968: The Use of Commodity Bags in Garment Construction. Ph.D. Dissertation, Louisiana State University, August 2005.
Brandes, Kendra. “Feed Sack Fashion in Rural America: A Reflection of Culture.” The Online Journal of Rural Research and Policy 4 no. 1 (2009): 1-23.
Brinkley, William. “Degrees by the Dozen on $40.00 a Week.” Life Magazine, September 19, 1955, 108-204.
Cheatham, R.J.. Cotton Bags as Consumer Packages for Farm Products. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1933.
Church, Minnie L.. “What To Do With the Sacks.” American Cookery, May 1921, 206- 207.
Cook, Anna Lue. Identification and Value Guide to Textile Bags. Florence, Alabama: Books Americana, Inc., 1990.
Hancock, Angela and Paula Wilson, “Chicken Linen and Other Cloth Sacks.” Bittersweet 4 no. 4 (1977):
“History Wired: a Few of Our Favorite Things.” Si.edu. Available from http://historywired.si.edu/detail.cfm?ID=391. Internet; accessed 29 March 2010.
Miller, Susan. Vintage Feed Sacks. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 2007. “National Museum of American History Collection: Feed Sack Dress.”
 Minnie Church, “What To Do With the Sacks.” American Cookery, May 1921, 207.
 These prices were taken from the Sears and Roebuck Fall Catalog of 1927 (See illustration attached).
 Anna Lue Cook, Identification and Value Guide to Textile Bags, 73. Families that did not use such high volumes of dry goods could purchase empty bags for five to fifteen cents each from their local baker. Bakers were usually happy to get rid of their extra packaging in this way.
 Several companies claim to have introduced the Dress Print Commodity bag. The Bemis Brothers Bag Manufacturing company takes credit on its historical website www.bemis150.com for introducing printed bags to the United States while the article “Chicken Linen and Other Cloth Sacks” by Angela Hancock and Paul Wilson from the Summer 1977 edition of Bittersweet gives credit to the Werthan Bag corporation in Nashville, Tennesee. The Percy Kent bag company has a significant amount of surviving primary sources from the mid thirties to back up its claims of being the first company to print patterns on their bags. A selection of Percy Kent advertisements can be found in Gloria Nixon’s Feedsack Secrets: Fashion from Hard Times.
 “History Wired: a Few of Our Favorite Things.” Si.edu. Available from http://historywired.si.edu/detail.cfm?ID=391. Rules from the 1960 Cotton Bag Sewing Contest stated “Articles must be made entirely of cotton bags except for trimmings; they must have been made after January 1, 1960; and the same items may not be entered at more than one participating fair
 National Museum of American History Collection: Feedsack Dress.” Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Image used with permission Available from http:americanhistory.si.edu/collections/object.cfm?key=35&objkey=197.
 Several terms are commonly used in the sources collected for this paper when discussing cloth bags. These bags will be referred to as “textile bags, commodity bags, feedsacks and flour sacks,” but will always describe a cotton bag of varying size, sewn together with a machine made chain stitch originally used to store household goods such as flour, sugar, salt, and chicken feed. Sources from the last ten years discussing these bags in a scholarly context tend to use the term, “commodity bag.”