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!