In 1989, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) received an unusual gift—the contents of a successful dressmaking shop that had been shut for more than forty years. It was the business of Anna and Laura Tirocchi, custom dressmakers to Providence’s elite for three decades. Inside was a treasure trove of research material, including financial records, dress designs, clients’ measurements, and swaths of beautiful fabric. This unique collection is documented in the book From Paris to Providence: Fashion, Art, and the Tirocchi Dressmakers’ Shop, 1915-1947, edited by Susan Hay (RISD, 2000). There is also a companion website run by Brown University.
The Tirocchis had trained as custom dressmakers in Italy and according to family accounts had worked for royalty in Rome. When they came to the United States, they decided to open a shop for the well-to-do in Providence. Within a few years, they were making bridal gowns, debutante dresses, and the everyday clothes of the wealthy women of that city.
Anna, the older of the two sisters, was the brains behind the business. While keeping high standards, she took shortcuts whenever possible. Very early on she began to offer high quality ready-to-wear, which she later augmented with accessories and household linens. She ordered “robes,” pre cut and embroidered pieces of fabric that needed only to be adjusted to the wearer’s measurements. By the 1920s, her original design work began to take a backseat, as customers asked for copies of clothes by Parisian designers like Patou (a Providence favorite) and Chanel.
There is so much to learn from this beautiful book—how a custom dressmaking business was run, who the clients were, how the workers were treated, and the shop’s sources for clothing designs and fabric. If you haven’t already seen it, take a look. It is the perfect combination of intellectual stimulation and pure visual pleasure.