In the 1951 contract that Gloria Swanson signed with Puritan Dress was a clause promising that she would make a month long promotional trip every year to promote her line of Forever Young dresses. Her archive is filled with documents from these trips spanning the years from 1952 to 1962, including hundreds of photos of the fashion shows each department store sponsored. Although the line continued until 1971 (I think), the tours ended almost a decade before.
Tour planning began with a contract between Puritan and the store. Swanson laid out her requirements for the fashion show venue, including flattering lighting (preferably pink, never yellow) and an elevated stage. The store paid for Swanson’s travel and accommodations while she was there. It also paid for her food, not a small expense. Swanson was a vegetarian and an early advocate of organic food; all of her fruits and vegetables were shipped from an organic farm in California.
The tours were jam-packed affairs. In 1952, she visited twenty cities in a month, giving two fashion shows in each venue. She usually traveled by train and was often met by local dignitaries who offered her the key to the city. “When this trip is over…I’m going to fall in a heap. It’s worse than a politician’s whistle stop tour,” Swanson told an interviewer in Cleveland. (The Cleveland Press, September 20, 1952).
Photos of the department store events show big crowds, with young and old alike. Surely some of the audience was there just to see Swanson, but the raffle for two free Swanson dresses was also a draw. Letters written back to Puritan reveal that sales went up after the shows, with the biggest sales in dresses that Swanson herself wore.
Although Swanson’s clothes were also offered in standard sizes, half sizes received the most attention. Some stores only stocked the half size line. Swanson was a passionate booster of this size range, even trying to start a half size line in Europe with an Italian company (one of her many failed fashion ventures.) As one radio host said after an interview with Swanson in 1958, “I did learn that half sizes, long a dirty word in fashion centers, is something most older gals will have to face and deal with.” (The Jane Todd Show, KCBS San Francisco, September 4, 1958.) Comments sent back from store managers show that at least some of the audience was convinced. “My secretary, who wears a half size dress, told me that she has never heard as much comment about the merchandise in a show that we have given,” wrote Fred Lazarus, Vice President of Shilloto’s Department Store in Cincinnati. “I think this is an unusual comment because, frankly, I would have thought that almost everybody came to see you rather than the dresses.”
Could I write a comprehensive history of Swanson’s fashion line using the just the information in this archive? Unfortunately, the answer is no. I still have many questions. Although she was certainly not the designer, did she have any say in the clothes that went out under her name? How popular were these clothes, and how did sales figures change over time? In the fifties Swanson’s fashion line commanded full page ads, but by the 1960s her clothes were just one option among many, as you can see from the New York Times listing above.
It’s not even clear from the archive when the line ended. Searching ads on the comprehensive site Newspapers.com, I found one solitary mention in 1971 placed in the News Herald of Franklin, Pennsylvania. It was a brief listing of a specialty store’s offerings in the classified—quite a come down from the fifties. Was that the end? Maybe so, since she claimed in a 1972 interview that she had left Puritan because she had clashed with her boss. When and why? I would probably have to find an archive for Puritan Dress (if it exists) to answer these questions.
Nonetheless, I did learn that Gloria Swanson was a popular advocate of stylish clothing for older women in the 1950s. She joins Mrs. Exeter as proof that the American fashion industry did once care about fitting and styling the no-longer-young.