Tobé Coller Davis–the First Lady of Fashion Forecasting

Tobé Coller Davis and Sylvia Porter. Click to enlarge

If you read about the history of the American garment industry, it doesn’t take long to come across the name Tobé Coller Davis (1888-1962).  After a varied career in clothing companies and department stores, she opened a fashion forecasting company in the 1920s. Today she is widely regarded as the founder of that lucrative industry in the United States.

I found an account of Tobé’s life quite by accident in the book The Fashion Director by Elaine Jabenis. Born to Jewish immigrants in Milwaukee in 1888, her given name was Taube, which means dove in German.  Her father was in the garment industry. The family moved to New York around 1910, but her father’s new business didn’t take off.  By 1914 Taube went out to work on her own, gaining experience in a wide range of jobs including a brief stint as a custom dressmaker.  In 1918, she was hired as advertising director for the Franklin Simon department store.  Here she learned skills that would serve her well in her own company—follow fashion news, keep an eye on Paris styles, and observe what the most fashionable women were wearing.

When did Taube become Tobé? It must have been before she launched her company, Tobé and Associates, in 1927.  Beginning with just four clients, she put out a weekly newsletter predicting which of the new French fashion trends would make inroads into the American market. Expanding her reach, she started a yearly event called “The Fashion Forum” in 1929, a three day seminar of lectures and demonstrations about fashion trends and advertising techniques.  The business boomed.

Good Housekeeping, 1938. Click to enlarge

By the mid thirties—in the midst of the depression–she had over 100 clients. She renamed her company Tobé—her first name alone apparently enough—and moved to the poshest part of Fifth Avenue.  The ad above calls her America’s “style dictator.”

Red Book, 1938

In 1937 she and Julia Coburn, then editor of Ladies Home Journal, founded the Tobé- Coburn School for Fashion Careers. An innovation at the time, it was designed to train women to take on executive positions in department stores and fashion companies.  Maybe one day I’ll take a look at the school’s archives, housed at the New York Public Library.

In the fifties, she also started to write syndicated fashion columns for newspapers called “Tobe Says.” (Perhaps newspapers couldn’t be bothered to add the accent mark.)  I discovered one published in early 1961 called “It is Your Duty to Stay Young.”  Did older women find it reassuring? “The trick is to look young but not ridiculous. Don’t pretend to be twenty if you’re in that indeterminate middle age that stretches from forty to seventy, for there’s a modern way of looking young no matter what your age.  It begins with your hairdo, your skin, and particularly your skirt length this season.”

It’s not easy finding photos of Tobé, so it’s hard to say if she followed her own advice.  The large press photo above has contradictory dates on the back but I think it was taken in the mid fifties, when Tobé was approaching seventy.  Her skin is certainly beautiful, but I wouldn’t say her style looks particularly young.  She wears many markers of a well off older woman—a dress with a raised waist (perhaps to disguise a menopot), a flowery hat, and beautiful pearls.

But who needs youth if you have energy?  Tobé founded an industry and a legacy. The fashion report and the school she started (now refocused and renamed) still exist today.

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California Beach Party, 1933

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This looks like a fun party.  Even though it was 1933, and alcohol was still officially banned in the US, note the wine bottle in the background and the cups raised high.  The setting is Half Moon Bay, California, on the coast between San Francisco and Santa Cruz.  Like many beach towns, Half Moon Bay had its share of rum runners during Prohibition, so maybe they were celebrating a recent delivery.

Susan from the blog Witness2Fashion sent me this snap from her amazing stash of family photos. These were friends of her parents, people who knew how to have fun with or without alcohol, she wrote.

The photo is a study in contrasts between old and young, formal and informal, dark and light.  The breakdown is by age, rather than gender.  For both women and men, the older generation wore dark, dressy, out of date clothes, in contrast to the light colored, light hearted and casual outfits of the younger set.

The contrast is particularly extreme for the women. The two young ones sported casual, trendy beach attire. On the far right, the woman had on what looks like a wide divided skirt, almost transparent, and a sweatshirt with a cartoon character on the front.  (Susan observed that it looks like the character Jiggs from the comic strip Bringing Up Father.) The young woman in the middle wore wide legged trousers and a sweatshirt, which might also be emblazoned with a cartoon character—perhaps Jiggs’ wife Maggie, speculated Susan.  She wasn’t even wearing shoes.  Neither of these two would look out of place on a California beach today.

However, the grandmother holding the baby might have strolled in from a different fashion universe, or at least a different decade. She was in full 1920s attire, with her clutch coat, cloche hat, and black stockings.  Everything was black except for her coat collar. Since she had turned her back to most of the young people, I thought at first her plan was to rescue the baby from this band of happy revelers.

I wonder what the photographer, there in the shadows, was wearing.

 

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Considering the Matron

Vogue, March 15 1914. Click to enlarge

You don’t see the word matron much anymore, but it was an important term of reference in fashion writing in the early twentieth century.  Since I’m fascinated by synonyms (and euphemisms) for “old,” I used the search engines for women’s magazines to see how usage has evolved.

Writers and advertisers at the beginning of the twentieth century used the word “matron” like we use the word “woman” today.  It meant a grown up female, as opposed to a girl or a maid. Magazines employed identifying adjectives to make differentiations within the group—young matron, middle aged matron, and elderly matron.

While matron started as a neutral term, the adjective “matronly” already had a slightly pejorative tone.  As you can see in the illustration above, the “matronly” figure was something that was best disguised.

Vogue, February 15 1936. Click to enlarge

Vogue turned against the matron earlier than other women’s magazines. While there were still a few “young matrons” in 1930s, writers started to avoid the term as something sadly associated with old age.  The 1936 article “No More Matrons,” focused on clothes that did not immediately identify the wearer as “old.” And a decade later when Vogue launched Mrs. Exeter, its older woman of fashion, the term “matron” was never used.

Good Housekeeping, October 1955. Click to enlarge

It took longer for matron to disappear from mass market magazines like Good Housekeeping.  By the forties, however, it was most frequently used in advertisements paired with “young.”  In Ladies Home Journal, the main source of the word was in the column “There’s a Man in the House” by Harlan Miller. From the forties to the sixties, he  offered tales from suburbia where matrons were almost always fussy married ladies of years.

While one could still proudly be a matron in the early twentieth century, it was never a good thing to be matronly.  Today, “matron” appears primarily in the context of weddings; matronly—except as the highest insult—has all but disappeared.

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Bessie McHugh from her Thirties to her Sixties

1934

“On a steamer going to Catalina, June 25, 1934. That was the way we celebrated Our Anniversary.” So reads the message on the back of this romantic photo.  It depicts John McHugh, born in Ireland in 1889, and his wife Bessie, born in Illinois in 1896.  I suspect it celebrates their twentieth wedding anniversary. By that time they had had five children. It  is one of a stack of photos sent to me by Eimear Greaney documenting the life of her distant cousin John and his wife.

On their anniversary cruise, the two looked elegant in their white outfits.  They must have been well off to afford the trip from their home in Chicago in the midst of the Great Depression.  Bessie, here around 38, wore a drapey dress with a high waist and a gored skirt. The matching long jacket, quite the style in 1934, lengthened her shape. I would love to have a better look at the wide trim at her neckline. Or is it a scarf?

1936. Click to enlarge

In 1936, Bessie and John were again on a cruise—perhaps for another celebration. Bessie was now around forty. She wore what looks like a wool suit with a peplum, a decorative belt, and an A-line skirt.  Peplums were part of “the new scheme of things,” according to Vogue magazine in 1936, so Bessie was right in style. The poor fit of the bodice drew attention to her full bust. Her shoes were sensible, but two toned to give them a little interest.

1947

There were no pictures of Bessie again until 1947 at her daughter Margie’s wedding.  Even though the New Look had taken some of the fashion world by storm early in the year, Bessie was not converted.  Her dress, with its draped front, looks very much like a style I found in the Vogue Pattern Book for 1946.  Maybe she had found her dress well before the wedding and did not see the need to change.

1950. Click to enlarge

Three years later, in 1950, Bessie was snapped at the wedding of a friend’s daughter. We can’t see the bottom of the dress, but it is clear that Bessie decided to emphasize her chest with an elaborately ruched bodice.  The scooped neckline and corsage bring attention to her face.

1958

The first color photo was from 1958, when John and Bessie took a trip to Dublin.  Her beige coat appears to be the favored swing shape of the era.  Although she had on the short white gloves I clearly remember from my childhood, she wore no hat.

1962

In this final picture, Bessie and John were at home in Chicago at Christmas time, 1962.  Bessie, at 66, had gone completely gray.  Her simple dress made nods to current fashion.  The blue print looks abstract and the shape a simple sheath with a belted waist. Compared to her other outfits, it is a little plain.  However, this was the first time we have seen her at home.

So here are the clothes of a prosperous American woman in mid-twentieth century middle America over three decades.  She followed the twists and turns of fashion, but not slavishly and always with consideration of her full figure.

Thanks to Eimear for the photos and to Familysearch.org, a comprehensive (and free!) site, for the genealogical information.

 

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The Strappy Shoe of the 1920s

LaRee Johnson Bruton, Ladies’ Vintage Accessories. Click to enlarge

I love the elegant shapes of 1920s shoes, examined in some detail in the blog Witness2Fashion.  (See also here).  One fashion alternative from the era was the shoe with many straps.  I found a photo of a pair, this one with high heels, in the informative book Ladies’ Vintage Accessories. 

Click to enlarge

If my photo collection is at all representative, many older women shied away from the delicate pumps of the era. Perhaps they didn’t offer enough support for those who had started to worry about stability.  But not everyone wanted to go around in sensible oxfords.

The strappy shoe offered a stylish alternative.  I have seen them with many different numbers of straps, at many different heel types.

Some came with center straps and looked a little like the high fashion “cage” shoes of that the late 2000s, but with much lower heels.

Perhaps strappy shoes served as a marker distinguishing those in later middle age from the truly elderly, as we see in the photo above.

Whatever the case, I wish someone would consider reissuing the style.  I would snap it up right away.

 

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Our Lady of the Parrots, 1941

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“Touch and feed the animals at your own risk,” it says on the plaque behind this intrepid parrot lover.  The picture was taken somewhere in Florida in 1941.  Does anyone have any idea where?

I don’t think I would be so calm with a parrot on my head, but our birder looks very comfortable.  She wears a belted dress in a drapey fabric—maybe rayon—with an appropriate skirt length for the era.  You could buy a similar “Trimline Success Dress” offered in larger sizes in the Sears catalog for $5 in 1941. The bodice has some kind of decoration, maybe embroidery or couching, which is matched on the skirt.  Maybe it was better in person, but in the skirt details remind me of baggy pockets used too much.

Click to enlarge

Here’s another photo of the same woman with only two parrots as accessories. Apparently she came wearing a hat and glasses, both of which she took off for her main-parrot pose.  From this angle it is clear that her dress has puffy sleeves, another common style feature of the time. And take a look at her sensible shoes, just the thing to stroll around a parrot park.

 

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Happy New Year!

Fashion Museum, Bath. Click to enlarge

I won’t be wearing a wonderful champagne bottle dress on New Year’s eve, but I will be enjoying champagne. New Year’s Eve is my favorite holiday–no presents to worry about, no special foods (at least not in my household). There is just happiness, champagne, and the promise of a fresh start.

This amazing dress, made by someone who I hope likes the holiday as much as I do, is in the collection at the Fashion Museum in Bath, England.  I saw it several years ago as part of an exhibit called “Fifty Fabulous Frocks” marking the fiftieth anniversary of the museum. It showed not only stunning works by the world’s most famous designers, but also several home made dresses to illustrate what the average woman might have had in her closet.

It wasn’t hard for me to pick a favorite outfit. The museum even located a photo of the unknown owner of the dress who wore it with some alterations to a fancy dress ball in 1902.

May your New Year be filled with celebrations!

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The Cheerful Granny of 1925

“’Shhh, here’s the bedtime story,’” the ad copy reads. “As easily as she finds the page in her book, Grandmother sets the dial of the Kennedy. Riotous fun stops.  The familiar voice of a friend whom the children love but have never met fill the room. Popular entertainers are welcome members of the family circle.”

It looks to me like grandmother was on her way to being outsourced, but I don’t think that was the message the Kennedy company was trying to show.  Instead, the implication was  that radios were something for the whole family, and so easy to operate that even an older person could manage the task.

I am fascinated by advertisements showing grandmothers introducing new technology, not something we see in our media today.  This particular grandmother was obviously quite well off. The radio alone cost a whopping $142.50 in 1925, or about about $2000 today. The well appointed room and her elegant clothes add to the sense of luxury.  She wears a sheer lace top over a slip, a white collar (to bring light to the face, according to style books of the time), and a pearl necklace. What a shame that her shoes are not visible.

And the radio is so user friendly, she doesn’t even have to look at the dials!

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Greetings of the Season—1952 and 2017

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This card, badly faded, was sent out in 1952 with a holiday message on the front and a hand written note on the back.  Here’s the text of the short note: “45th w. anniv., 1907-1952. Henry and Birdie Davis.” Wouldn’t it have been fun to see the wedding photo as well?

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I think we can assume that the photo was taken at the anniversary party. Although Photoshop isn’t my strong suit, I’ve changed the lighting a little so we have a better look at their clothes.  Birdie had on a shirtwaist dress made more fancy by a pleated collar and circle shaped white trim.  Her pearl earrings echoed the buttons and the trim. The corsage added to the festive look.

Fashionable Clothing from the Sears Catalogs, Early 1950s

However, I think it’s Henry who takes the fashion cake with his plaid shirt, striped suspenders, and zigzag tie. Bold, wide ties were in fashion in 1952, and he clearly wasn’t afraid of pattern mixing. I would love to have seen the colors.

Here’s wishing all of you a peaceful holiday season.  Wear what you want and be happy!

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A California Christmas Party with Santa, 1966

The Women’s Sunday Morning Breakfast Club was an important institution in the African American community of Los Angeles. Like many women’s clubs, its members were well off with the time and money to work for charity.  We can see this in the photo above. The four women pictured are beautifully dressed. Although it is 1966, well into the more casual sixties, they wear hats and gloves. With one exception, the hats are on the small side, a trend in the decade. Two women have on fur stoles, a real luxury in the warm Southern California climate.

There are no children in the picture, but newspaper coverage in the African American newspaper, The Sentinel, states that the “sepia Santa” handed out food, clothing, and toys to needy families at the party. You can see some of the gifts above.  One was store bought, but the other dolls on display were handmade by women in prison.  I’d line up for that fanciful doll on the left.

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