"Ready to Wear" | Reviewed by Bill Schwab
Valerie Battle Kienzle loves to engage in research and pursues her subject matter with verve and competence. She describes herself as “a history nerd”. Her pursuit of exploring the past benefits all who pick up her books and her latest book about the St. Louis fashion industry is no exception.
Kienzle started searching through the photo archives at the Missouri History Museum and Landmark Association of St Louis. What she found stimulated her passion for fashion history so much that she did not want to stop her research. “I was a kid going down rabbit holes. It was all so fascinating,” she recalls. The talented author researched the shoe and garment industries for five years before deciding to write her book which walks readers down Washington Avenue, the heart of the garment district, also called Shoe Street USA. She points out the buildings where the hum of sewing machines produced piles of clothing and the clanking of leather presses stamping out shoes rang out for decades.
In a stunningly, colorful coffee table book, the author chronicles three types of fashion industries in the Gateway City—fur, footwear, and ready-to-wear garments. St. Louis was founded as a fur trading post in 1764. At the apex of the fur business, millions of pelts--mink, mole, squirrel, badger, marmot, muskrat, rabbit, opossum, and skunk--were stored in large, smelly warehouses near the Mississippi River waiting to be shipped around the world. These storehouses were located where the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial is today.
During the 19th century, St. Louis became known as a cotton and wool distribution center and also as a massive producer of footwear and ready-to-wear clothing. Many specialty items were designed and produced at local factories. For example, the junior dress size and style originated in St Louis, its sales flourishing from the 1930s through the 1960s. Retailers from New York and other fashion centers traveled to the Midwest semiannually to purchase racks of junior and other style dresses as well as grosses of shoes to sell in their high-end retail shops back home.
“Ready to Wear” expands St. Louis’ history through the unique lens of fashion by recounting the development of several multimillion-dollar businesses, reporting seldom-told stories, and reproducing old ads and photographs. Kienzle interweaves history, personal stories, and local lore to repeatedly surprise the reader with facts about the fashion industry and stories of people who became famous for their contributions to fashion, some of whom became philanthropists whose endowments continue to support the fine arts in St. Louis.
One of the notable industry personalities of the post-Civil War era was the formerly enslaved Elizabeth Keckley, a woman who purchased her freedom and her son’s by using the money she earned as a seamstress in St. Louis. Keckley’s superb stitching skills led her to eventually work as Mary Todd Lincoln's personal seamstress during her White House years. Another little-known tidbit is that local Coed-Frocks and Brown Shoe Company made the uniforms for the Girl Scouts of America. And during World Wars I and II, Brown Shoe Company, International Shoe company, and Hamilton-Brown Shoe Company manufactured millions of pairs of boots for all branches of the U.S. military. Many of these were produced in plants in small towns such as Columbia, Hermann, and Washington, Missouri.
Kienzle's book successfully logs the rise and fall of St. Louis as a fashion city but also promotes its rebirth, pointing out that St. Louis fashion continues to play a key role in the city’s economic and civic life. “There are more companies and people making one-of-a-kind jewelry and clothing designs here than people realize,” says Kienzle. She also describes how several of the well-built industrial buildings on or near Washington Avenue have been repurposed for residences, businesses, and dining spots.
This entertaining history is suitable for everyone. Its layout allows it to be read a page at a time or in one long sitting.
About the Author: Valerie Battle Kienzle spent more than thirty-five years employed as a newspaper writer, corporate public affairs manager, advertising account representative, school district communications writer, and freelance writer. She is a resident of Weldon Spring, Missouri. Reedy Press is the publisher of this 214-page book which includes a large resource section, a bibliography, countless photographs, and a thorough index.