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: