Star endorsements for all kinds of products have a long history in the United States. Sometimes the stars had little say in the matter. Many things were named after the great actress Helena Modjeska, from chocolates to dinnerware, mostly without her permission. The Marie Dressler line of clothing was conceived after the star had died.
But Gloria Swanson’s clothing line had her active involvement from the start. She was known for designing her own clothes, and even won the Neiman-Marcus Award for Distinguished Service in the Field of Fashion in 1950. At that point, she was approached by garment manufacturers about starting a line. While the first offer came from a company offering higher priced products, she decided to sign with the Puritan Dress Company, which focused heavily on half sizes for the larger woman.
Why did Swanson decide to skew her product towards a size range designed to fit the older set? In her memoir, Swanson on Swanson, she says it was in honor of her “dear stout mother.” It might have also been because she recognized a market niche; a 1952 article on the Puritan company in the New Yorker stated that over three quarters of the female population fell into the half size range, obviously not all of them old.
According to her memoir, Swanson was a hands-on participant in the company. She went to Paris and Florence for ideas, and the ad above shows that she used European inspiration as a selling point. To popularize her clothes, she went on trips around the country and appeared at department store fashion shows. She even engineered her own idea of vanity sizing, “talking them into making dresses with generous hem and seams so that women could feel good buying the smallest possible size and then let it out if necessary.”
Although half sizes could fit a variety of women, Swanson makes it clear that she had older women in mind for her designs. Since she felt that long sleeves were a mark of “old ladies’ dresses,” she asked them to be made shorter. Acknowledging that necks were the first feature to show age, she insisted that necklines be made lower so that the neck would look longer. (Personally, I find this particular idea counter intuitive.)
As a health food advocate and exercise devotee, Gloria Swanson took the idea of “forever young” to heart. I would love to have been able to sit in on one of her fashion shows.