Gloria Vanderbilt 1924 – 2019

New York ‘best-dressed’ heiress and ‘Jeans Queen’ socialite known for her troubled childhood, failed marriages, various affairs with numerous celebrities, exquisite taste, and mother of news journalist Anderson Cooper, died Monday (June 17).

There are plenty of tributes about Ms. Vanderbilt, but it’s primarily her contribution to fashion I want to mark with this post. In 1976, Gloria Vanderbilt was in discussion with Hong Kong fashion firm Murjani about creating a line of clothes under her name. Sexy-fitted high-waisted women’s jeans in stretch denim became the focus of the line that was an instant success the moment it was launched in 1977. Vanderbilt ushered in the era of designer jeans that would become cluttered with names like Calvin Klein, Jordache, and Sasson. The label remained popular for years, but by the late 1980s other brands had overtaken sales.

Celebrity Fashion Brand – Betty Wales

A recent article about celebrity fashion brands brought to mind a number of names from over the past 150 years. However, a few names came to mind that are also not real people – Sara Lee, Betty Crocker, Aunt Jemima are some of the fictional celebrities used to sell food, but fictional characters have also sold apparel.

Betty Wales was a character from a series of novels written by Edith Kellogg Dunton under the nom de plume Margaret Warde. The novels in which the college-aged Betty Wales appears were published between 1904 and 1917. The books were immensely popular with teens and collegiate aged women.

In 1915 a line of ‘Betty Wales’ dresses were created in conjunction with the Goldman Costume Company of New York and Dunton’s publisher – the purchase of a dress entitled the buyer to a free book from the series. Advertisements for Betty Wales dresses appear frequently in the late 1910s and 1920s when the company grew from its New York origins, where a building was built for Betty Wales in 1922/23 at 242 West 36th street, into the midwest.

The Chicago Tribune reported in their January 21, 1931 edition: “Betty Wales Dress Shops Inc., now at 67 East Madison Street and 4601 Sheridan road, and with a store in New York City, have leased the entire four story building at 172 North Michigan Ave. for twenty years at a net term rental of $400,000 annually. The building formerly was occupied by the National Cash Register Company… A new front will be built throughout the entire building of black and white marble, with all outside metal work satin finish cast aluminum in modern design… Mundie & Jensen, Chicago architects will represent the owner… David Baer, president of the Betty Wales Dress Shops, Inc., states that since the opening of their first store in Chicago in 1919, their business has enjoyed a steady growth until today the quarters at 67 East Madison street – has become entirely too small.”

The company continued on well after the death of Edith Dunton in 1944 when the identity and origin of Betty Wales was all but forgotten. The most recent example of a Betty Wales labelled dress I could find was a little black dress from the mid 1960s.

The character of a Ploshkin (a tiny sea creature) featured in the stories that Betty Wales told a friend. In one of the stories, statues of the creature were sold in a tea room started by Betty Wales. The company also made plaster statues of the Ploshkin, that could be ordered from the company. (Thanks to reader Leslie for this tidbit of info, as well as more info about the dress company that made Betty Wales frocks.)

Bill Sims – Celebrity fashion brand

You have probably never heard of Bill Sims but in 1918, he was the Vice Admiral of the U.S. Navy, and everybody knew his name.

In the late 19th century little boys began wearing sailor outfits with middy tops – shapeless shirts with open necks and broad collars trimmed with rows of braid. Women’s swimwear also took on the sailor middy top style. The nautical theme suited the beach, and the unstructured top provided ease of movement for swimming and all forms of sporting activities. By the 1910s middies were standard apparel for schoolgirls, worn with knickers or a pleated skirt, for gym class. Manufacturers were competing for dominance in the middy market, and one of the most successful was sold under the folksy, friendly sounding name of Bill Sims but that name was actually inspired by Vice Admiral William Sowden Sims.

William Sims

William Sims was born in 1858 in Port Hope, Ontario, Canada to American parents. At the age of 18 Sims entered the U.S. Naval Academy and then served at sea for 17 years. After postings as naval attaché to U.S. embassies in Paris and St. Petersburg, and returning to sea during the Spanish-American War, Sims wrote a series of reports criticizing U.S. ships and naval marksmanship. Sims was called to Washington by Theodore Roosevelt to oversee improvements in naval gunnery. Sims was promoted to rear admiral and made head of the Naval War College and was reputedly beloved by younger officers who affectionately referred to him as ‘Bill’. When the U.S. entered the Great War in April 1917, Rear Admiral Sims was promoted to Vice Admiral. He played a leading role in the development of the convoy system to protect Allied shipping from submarine attacks. After armistice, Sims resumed his post as the head of the Naval War College until his retirement in 1922. It was during this time after the war and before his retirement that a line of middy blouses with his name first appeared.

1923 advertisement

Clothing manufacturers were becoming aware that brand names meant something in the marketplace, and a recognizable ‘celebrity’ could lead to better sales. However, it is doubtful Vice Admiral William Sims ever saw any money for the use of his informal name for the line of middy blouses.

1929 advertisement

Although the shapeless middy slowly fell from fashion and gym uniforms became more streamlined, nautical styling remained a popular sportswear motif and was revived in mainstream fashions into the 1980s. The Bill Sims brand survived several decades, but in different forms of clothing, from smocks to poly-cotton day dresses, until nobody knew who ‘Bill Sims’ was anymore, probably mistaking the name for the owner of the company. The last garments to sport Bill Sims labels were made in the mid 1970s.

Thanks to Carrie Pollack of Cur-io Vintage for finding and sharing the Bill Sims information.

Marie Dressler – celebrity branding pioneer?

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Advertisement for Marie Dressler dresses, March 1942

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Canadian-born actress Marie Dressler

About six years ago I bought a dress from an online shop that had a Marie Dressler label and hang tag. I knew Marie Dressler was a Canadian-born actress (I had seen her in a couple of films – Tugboat Annie, and Dinner at Eight) but was not aware of her clothing line. Dressler won an Oscar for Best Actress in 1930 and was, for a time, the highest paid movie star in Hollywood, earning $4,000 a week. In August 1933, Dressler also became the first woman to grace the cover of Time magazine. I assumed that Dressler had loaned her name for a line of clothes, something every other celebrity seems to be doing today, but this doesn’t appear to be the case. With thanks to everyone at the Vintage Fashion Guild who helped put the pieces together, I think we have figured out the story.

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Hang tag from dress, image courtesy of Viva Vintage

Marie Dressler dresses were manufactured in Cleveland, Ohio by the Gottfried Co. Online trademark information indicates the name was being used by the company to sell plus size dresses between March 1935 and 1947. Problem is, Dressler died in July 1934. I wondered how a company could legally get away with using a famous person’s name to sell product, but I think I know how they got around it. Dressler was born some time between 1863 and 1871 in Cobourg, Ontario (most sources agree it was either 1868 or 1869) with the name Leila Marie Koerber. She professionally used her middle name as her first name and borrowed the last name Dressler from her aunt. When Marie Dressler became an actress in the 1880s it was still considered a dubious career, so the name change was to avoid embarrassing her family. I suspect Dressler never legally changed her name, and after her death who would sue if the Gottfried company sold their plus-size dresses with her name? The hang tag is carefully written to imply but not infer the dress is associated with Dressler.