Elizabeth Hilt, Queen of the Shirtwaist

Life, April 23, 1951

Life, April 23, 1951

If the shirtwaist was the most beloved style of the 1950s, then Elizabeth Hilt was the most beloved designer. She gained a reputation for creating stylish shirtwaists for Henry Rosenfeld, “America’s best known supplier of popular priced dresses,” according to Life magazine. (“Big Name in Dresses,” Life April 23, 1951).

It isn’t easy to track down facts about lesser known designers who don’t show up in the big fashion magazines. Luckily Hilt caught the attention of the New York Times fashion editor, Virginia Pope. When Pope asked Hilt to design dresses for the Patterns of the Times series, she gave her readers background on the woman who had a knack for creating stylish designs for the American mainstream in the 1950s.

Elizabeth Hilt Rosier, born (I think) in 1894, learned to sew as a child but went to business school for her education. That combination of business acumen and sewing skills gave her an excellent understanding of how to make good clothes for a broad audience. “‘I want the dresses I design to be rich and expensive looking for the least money,” Miss Hilt said. ‘That is the spirit of democracy. It is the greatest thing we have to give in this country.'” (Virginia Pope, “Behind the Mass Sales by Henry Rosenfeld is Elizabeth Hilt,” New York Times, April 2, 1951”)

Pope believed that Hilt’s work showed real mastery. “The ‘budget’ dress manages, in skilled hands, to capture the trends of the day without exaggeration.” And Hilt was unapologetic about her attraction to lower prices. “I find that women in all income levels like a smart, inexpensive dress.” (Virginia Pope, “”Popular Price” Dress with Style Created by Elizabeth Hilt” New York Times, January 3, 1955).

This wonderful photo of Hilt at work shows how she simplified a complicated design, on the left, so that the company could sell the dress at a lower price. What the company saved on expensive trims they invested into high quality fabric. If my dates are correct, she would have been around fifty-seven here. Too bad we don’t have a good view of what Hilt was wearing, but it doesn’t look like a shirtwaist.

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4 Responses to Elizabeth Hilt, Queen of the Shirtwaist

  1. I love the way she has edited this design — I think the simpler version would be much more becoming to most women, as well as less expensive to manufacture. There’s quite a skill in knowing what to leave out!

  2. Both dresses are wonderful!
    So you’re a reader of Virginia Pope’s columns back in the day in the New York Times. Weren’t they great? I discovered them while idly browsing the archival NYT database some years back when I was doing reference desk duty as a librarian. Wouldn’t I love to read about sewing beautiful, stylish clothes in today’s New York Times Style section. (In my dreams!)

  3. Jen O says:

    Thanks for this post, it is interesting to find out more about her.

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