Film star and entrepreneur Gloria Swanson was something of a pack rack, as evidenced by over 620 boxes of materials housed in her archive at the Henry Ransom Center. Only about twenty boxes—a tiny fraction–have anything to do with her careers in fashion. Even though there is a basic description of each box’s contents, turning the pages is still a thrill. I found labor contracts, fan mail, records of several failed business enterprises, hang tags, garment labels, and hundreds of photographs. Unfortunately, I can’t include images here because I didn’t pay the hefty fees for reproduction.
In 1951, film star Gloria Swanson signed a deal to design for the Forever Young clothing line produced by the Puritan Dress Co. The brand was already decades old when Swanson signed on; Vintage Fashion Guild shows labels reaching back to the 1930s. Offering sizes from 10 or 12 to 20 and 12 ½ to 22 ½, Forever Young had long presented itself as a fashion friendly, reasonably priced source for clothing aimed at older women. It even offered licensed copies by Parisian designers.
In her memoir, Swanson on Swanson, the star writes that Puritan chose her for her designing skills. Documents in the archive tell a different story, however. One letter in the archive reveals that Puritan had threats of law suits against it from companies charging that the Swanson dresses were in fact copies of preexisting styles. In several letters to the chairman, Carl Rosen, Swanson complained that clothes were going out under her name without her approval. In addition, there are only a few sketches of dress designs by Swanson in the fashion folders.
Most likely, it was the star power of her name that got her the job. Swanson was 51 when she signed with Puritan. She never lied about her age and proudly declared herself a grandmother. To have such a famous older, and glamorous, person adding her name to the brand was a publicity coup for Puritan. Her contract included a promise that she would make a month’s long tour of department stores across the US each year promoting her brand.
The records from these promotional trips form the bulk of Swanson’s fashion archive. Some are fascinating documents, offering insights into what department store management and older consumers made of Gloria Swanson’s fashion line. I’ll share what I learned in the next post.