In the fall of 1959, the Duchess of Windsor began putting out sewing patterns under her name for the Spadea pattern company. The first offerings were a set of six rather fancy styles: three cocktail dresses, one day dress, one Chanel-esqe cardigan suit, and a coat. They were advertised in newspapers with drawings that looked like the Duchess—a very slim, no-longer-young woman with dark hair and big pearls. By the 1960s, Spadea dropped the Duchess as their model, using much younger looking women in their drawings. The patterns made good newspaper copy and were mentioned in many interviews in the 1960s. The very last Duchess pattern I found was from 1972.
Did she design them herself? A reporter in the New York Times noted that she didn’t have the skills to make patterns. “Endowed with taste, although lacking technical skills, the Duchess communicates her designs verbally to the company’s owner, James Spadea, and his wife. Sample suggestions: why not try buttoning a Chanel suit on the side, like a dentist’s jacket?” (“Windsors to Celebrate Silver Anniversary, New York Times, June 1, 1962) Perhaps the pattern below was the result.
In a conversation with Lizzie Bramlett, the Spadeas’s daughter, Anne Spadea Combs, confirmed that the ideas for the patterns all came from the Duchess. Her many biographers note her interest in dress design. She determined the shape and fabric of her first (of three) wedding dresses and several other outfits for important occasions.
It would be wonderful to get our hands on the sales figures for the Spadea company. Did the Duchess “brand” attract more buyers than the patterns of designers like Claire McCardell? Certainly the company’s ad copy cashed in her title. “The ladies adjusted their lorgnettes to see what the Duchess was wearing as she slipped off her coat… It was this beautifully shaped two piece dress.” (The Duchess of Windsor Patterns, Spadea Patterns, no date). References to the Duchess’s “aristocratic” taste and long term standing on the Best Dressed list suffused these descriptions.
Although the Duchess was well into her sixties when she began working for Spadea, her patterns gave little attention to the changing shape of the older body. Most were offered in standard ready to wear sizes. The pattern book I have contains 45 different designs, but only three came in larger half sizes.
Was there a distinctive “Windsor look”? I have only seen a fraction of the estimated 200 to 300 patterns she did for Spadea, so I don’t have all the evidence. But based on what I have seen, there are certain reoccurring elements. Many have pockets, something I favor myself. She often placed them cleverly inside of princess seams. In fact, so many of her outfits had princess seams that I wondered if this was another way that she tried to lay claim to royalty.
I’m a fan of Spadea patterns, and think that many of her patterns were chic. There were other “celebrity” patterns in the line “by” Dinah Shore and Patti Page, for example. The company was way ahead of the curve in terms of celebrity marketing.
I made that suit from a gray narrow stripe wool. I finished hemming it in the car on the way to somewhere. The duchess and her designs seemed so sophisticated to me then. Unfortunately, I no longer have either the pattern or the suit.
what a timely article. i was just looking up her patterns online as i was thinking that at least these are patterns potentially suitable for a mature woman , elegant, and timeless, and was interested to see where the emphasis lay as regards shaping, a few of these ideas i had found myself including in the last few years…………. she wears a lovely givenchy dress in some b/w photos photos with colour blocking at the waist, incredibly effective. i didnt realise she did so many for spadea, must look some more up
I have a jacket pattern I bought on ebay–one of these days I’ll make it up!
This is great fun to see. As for sizing, perhaps these patterns were often used by skilled home sewers and professional seamstresses, who would have the technical ability to alter a pattern to better fit a mature figure. It’s my guess that many women just continued to buy their ‘original’ size, and scaled that to fit any additional inches.
I would be interested to know if the patterns were sold in the UK where the Duchess, because of the abdication of Edward VIII, was not well liked. There is quite a revealing quote from the Duchess which would probably make a good thesis for someone researching the psychology of fashion;
“I began with my own personal ideas about style,” Wallis later said. “I’ve never felt correct in anything but the severe look I developed then.” http://www.baltimorestyle.com/index.php/style/baltimore/baltimore_the_woman_who_would_be_queen_dec10/#sthash.wbYl6Wta.dpuf
I had no idea there were so many different Duchess patterns for Spadea.
In my conversations with Anne Spadea Combs, I did ask about the existence of archives. The family some the business in 1976, and so she did not know if any of the records were kept, but it seems to be highly unlikely. It’s a shame, but such a common tale.