Fashion Forward at the National Archives

Today’s post was written by Laney Stevenson, Archives Technician at the National Archives at College Park.

Although fashion may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of government records and the holdings of the National Archives, fashion and dress has, and continues to be, a significant aspect of life for many women (and men!) across generations and around the world. In celebration of Women’s History Month, it seems fitting to share the stories of women in NARA records and to bring to light the accomplishments and achievements of women in the past.

These photographs feature a young woman, Marlene Dillman, whose skill and artistry as an amateur dressmaker won her an all-expense paid, two-week trip to Paris for an ensemble she submitted in a competition sponsored by McCall’s magazine. Of historical interest, particularly in the age of ready to wear and mass-produced off-the-rack clothing, a study entitled “The Woman Who Sews as a Woman of Fashion” which developed from data in the applicant entries, found that the average dressmaker in 1954 was a young housewife and mother who sewed primarily for enjoyment, in addition to considerations for household economy and an opportunity to create unique and original pieces.

The story and photographs are from Record Group 306, Records of the U. S. Information Agency, Press and Publications Service, Feature Packets with Recurring Subjects, 1953-1959 (NAID 1105040). The text is taken from the United States Information Service (USIS) Feature Story from March 1954 as well as the captions accompanying each photograph.

Winner Makes All

When Marlene Dillman plans and makes a new season’s wardrobe she does it now with the assurance that her fashion sense and sewing ability have met the tests of experts. Last year Marlene was chosen winner in a dressmaking contest sponsored by McCall’s, a leading women’s magazine in the United States.

“It was like a fairy tale come true,” said this young career woman who sews as a hobby, when she learned that her pale gray-green wool suit-dress had won McCall’s grand prize – a two week trip to Paris with visits to the studios of world-famous fashion designers. “I never had so many interesting experiences nor so much fun in my life,” she reported.

Marlene Dillman, a young American career girl, won a two-week, all-expense trip to Paris by making the smart-looking ensemble which she wears as she strolls past the city’s famous Arc de Triomphe. She is carrying the matching hip-length jacket that completes the pale gray-green wool costume. The gold-colored felt cloche and gold jewelry match the taffeta that lines the belted coat. An amateur dressmaker, Marlene was one of approximately 24,000 contestants in the competition sponsored by McCall’s, a leading women’s magazine in the United States.

Marlene began sewing when she was a small girl. Although her mother has for many years been a professional dressmaker, the daughter chose instead a career in the business world. Until January 1954 she was a secretary and programming assistant in a television studio in her hometown of San Francisco, California. Now she has moved to New York City to look for a job, but she stills plans to stay in television work and keep sewing as a hobby.

Nearly 24,000 women and girls – all amateur dressmakers – entered costumes in the “Dress-Your-Best” Contest to be judged on the basis of good taste, fashion appropriateness and general merit of workmanship. To make the decisions, McCall’s assembled a panel of five women prominent in the fields of fashion, fabrics, styling and home economics. Among them was Mme. Lilly Dache, internationally known fashion creator.

Wool gabardine, in a shade brighter than navy blue, falls in soft, simple lines in this basic dress that Marlene Dillman made for her 1954 wardrobe. Pleats on the bodice give the new French emphasis to the bustline, while the low-cut neck offers chances for accessory changes. On the street, this fur scarf replaces the silk cravat that makes this a smart office dress. Marlene, formerly on the staff of a television studio in her native San Francisco, resigned to look for a job in New York City.

From information on the contest entry blanks, McCall’s compiled a study called “The Woman Who Sews as a Woman of Fashion.” It shows that the home dressmaker in the United States is found in nearly equal numbers in cities and rural districts and among high-salaried families as well as in low-income groups. She sews primarily because she enjoys it, with economy and the chance for originality ranking as second and third reasons.

According to McCall’s study, the average woman who sews is a housewife between 20 and 39 years old, who has one or two children and a family income above the U. S. average. She makes 21 garments a year – 14 of them for herself, including dresses, costumes, a suit, and lingerie. In addition, she makes six garments for her children and one for her husband.

This average dressmaker uses mostly cotton fabrics, with wool and silk materials her next choices. She also likes the new synthetic-fiber fabrics. The factors on which she bases the selection of materials are, in order of preference, serviceability, color, “the way it looks,” price, and “the way it feels.”

Choosing a new fabric, printed wool crepe, Marlene Dillman made this dress on slim lines. It features sleeves cut as part of the bodice, hip pockets and trouser pleats in the skirt. The material, suitable for year-round wear, is white splashed with strawberries. As a young girl in San Francisco, California, Marlene received her first sewing instruction from her mother, who for many years has earned her living as a dressmaker.
To top her 1954 wardrobe, Marlene Dillman made this red wool coat which she wears over everything. It’s dropped shoulder line and stand-away neckline filled in with a soft scarf give it the year’s newest silhouette. Marlene has been making her own clothes since she was a very small girl – “at least for a dozen years,” she says. All of her costumes are distinguished by the fine hand sewing which she uses lavishly to supplement basic machine stitching.

3 thoughts on “Fashion Forward at the National Archives

  1. As a woman who has loved to sew for decades, I really enjoyed this article. Surprisingly, some things have not changed at all. It looks to me that Ms Dillman made some beautiful garments and deserved the win!

  2. I want to express my gratitude to this writer who writes very well and cover all the information on the topic. I have never read this information before. This is really an amazing topic which means a lot.

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