When was the last time anyone told you to rush to your local magazine stand? I’m guessing that it’s been quite a while. BUT there is a very fashionable and VERY shiny magazine in honor of David Bowie’s style and his influence on style, and even though it is 14 dollars (!!) you may want to try to grab a copy. The Brilliance of David Bowie—- published by Conde Nast and a really fun collaboration between all of their fashion/lifestyle/music/technology and etc publications.
This was also the most fashionable item available in the Wilmington, Delaware Amtrak station today. By far.
A coughing and sneezing historian’s note: My closer look at the MFA Boston’s Kimono Wednesday has been slightly sidelined by the sniffles! Sorry about that. (was it the Amtrak train to Amherst? The Peter Pan Bus to Boston? The fancy hotel that looked a little too clean? I only get colds when I come home from trips) Anyway, never mind, check back in a week or so—that Kimono post will be on the way soon!
Ellen Stewart. It can be a bit daunting to think of what people could have accomplished during the 20th century if the world had been a bit more like it is right now. Let’s take Ellen Stewart, for instance.
Five years ago, when I was looking for information about Ann Lowe’s work at Saks Fifth Avenue for my Master’s thesis, another black designer’s name began to pop up: Ellen Stewart. You may find some writers crediting Ann Lowe as the first African American designer to head a department at Saks Fifth Avenue—I’d proudly written something like that in an early draft of my thesis and had to cross it all out after finding out about Ellen Stewart. She was a dress designer with her own department at Saks in the 1950s—instead of ball gowns, she designed daywear and cocktail dresses and she sold them in her own department at Saks Fifth Avenue’s flagship store. She also sold dresses to other high-end New York department stores—Just like Ann Lowe and Wesley Tann, Ellen sold dress designs to Neiman Marcus, I. Magnin and Bergdorf Goodman.
This detail is especially interesting to me, because it suggests that there were a number of designers of color during this period who were quietly breaking the color line at the major department stores of the time. The history of this work has not been well documented–and unfortunately, the records kept by department stores–especially independent department stores from the 1950s and 1960s that have shut down, or were folded into other monster stores—I’m looking at you, Macy’s–were not preserved either.)
In 2006, Jerry Talmer of the Villager interviewed Ellen about her two careers: Starting as a fashion designer and then opening her own experimental theater group La Mama The entire interview is worth reading, but this is the section about her Saks Fifth Avenue time. Ellen arrived in New York to take fashion school classes—because she could not attend fashion school in Chicago (Even with Mrs. Adlai Stevenson offering to pay her tuition!) without agreeing to some demeaning guidelines to keep her from coming into contact with the white students. So, she came to New York and found a career in fashion:
“Monday morning the man on the elevator told me I could ride all the way downtown on a bus. Went downtown, looking for a job, didn’t get it, saw this big church across the street from a big store. Went into the church, which was St. Patrick’s Cathedral, said a prayer, came out and went into the store, which was Saks Fifth Avenue. I didn’t know what Saks Fifth Avenue was.
“The salesgirls wouldn’t tell me anything. An elevator girl told me to go up to Personnel, on the 8th floor. While I was there, Edith Lances, who had a whole department for custom-made brassieres and corsets, came looking for a trimmer to cut the threads off the brassieres. I could do that. She took me down to the 4th floor and put me to work.
“In those days, in Saks Fifth Avenue, the coloreds had to wear a blue smock, but at lunchtime you could take the smock off. Rumors were flying all over Saks that an exotic colored model was going around the store wearing Balenciaga clothes. We were all trying to figure out who this model was. Turned out it was me. Then all these white women started to ask what I was wearing. I was afraid of them …
“Edith Lances thought I should have a better job and took me to Sophie Gimbel, who owned the store. Sophie Gilbert (sic) said: ‘No niggers in my department.’ Yes, she really said that. So Edith Lances decided I was going to be her executive designer … [She] said: ‘You take off the smock, and from this day on you are Miss Ellen.’ At that time in Saks, Negroes were not allowed to be called Miss or Mister either. Well, they set me up in a workshop, a floor of my own, my own department, staffed by 15 concentration-camp survivors from Eastern Europe … [but] the coloreds demanded that I put the smock back on and not be called Miss.”
Ms. Stewart died in 2011 and again, someone (and by someone, I mean… well… me) has missed out on an amazing history project. Imagine interviewing and writing about the fashion careers of Ellen Stewart and Wesley Tann. It would have been an incredible article, and would have added a great deal of depth to my understanding of the black experience in the New York fashion industry.
Sometimes a historian misses out. There may be archival materials worth looking into for a future project, though.
And fortunately, there are a number of articles around the internet about Ellen’s theater work—and her fashion career is mentioned a bit too. I hope this brief profile has encouraged you to take a minute to explore a few of these articles:
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!