Woman's Cherokee Alphabet Pant Suit by Frankie Welch
This suit is part of the Frankie Welch archive in the University of Rhode Island’s Historic Textile and Costume Collection (URI HTCC). The inventory papers which accompany the donation provide important information for many of the pieces, such as the design name, commissioning body, date, and fiber type. Some pieces are business samples while others are unsold inventory as indicated by their hang tags. This piece appears to be the latter, although its condition indicates that it was worn.
The Cherokee Alphabet pant suit consists of three pieces: top, pants, and scarf. The most notable feature of all three is the print, which features the Cherokee alphabet, developed by the Cherokee leader Sequoyah in the 1820s as the first Native American syllabary.
The short-sleeved crew-neck tunic top has a skimming fit, with curved side seams and bust darts. There are also darts at the back neck, where it closes with a center back, lapped zipper and a hook and thread chain bar at the top.
The wide-leg pants are high-waisted with a bias facing. They are dart-fitted and close at the center back with a lapped zipper with hook and thread chain bar. The rectangular scarf measures 16 1⁄2” x 49 1⁄2” with a striped border of white, brown and black. The alphabet repeats twice, changing direction at the middle of the scarf.
The polyester fashion fabric is a plain weave. The neckline facing is made from two different inexpensive lining fabrics. The ensemble is entirely machine sewn. Seams are finished with pinking or left raw, while the hems are folded twice, first a shallow fold and then a deeper fold, then blind hemmed by machine. The scarf has a narrow double-fold hem.
Mary Frances Barnett, who went by Frankie, was born in 1923 to Mr. and Mrs. James Wyatt Barnett, and grew up in Rome, Georgia. On June 3, 1944 she married Pfc. William Calvin Welch of the U.S. Marine Corps at the North Broad Baptist Church in Rome. William was also from Rome and a graduate of Furman University, where Frankie was a junior when they married. He entered service in 1941, serving for 18 months in the South Pacific before being stationed in Pensacola. William eventually worked as a legislative liaison officer for the Veterans Administration in Washington D.C. He passed away in 1975.
Frankie Welch received her bachelor’s degree from Furman college, studying clothing and design. She belonged to the home economics club and the Senior Order (an honorary leadership society), served as business manager of the college paper and yearbook and as secretary of her sophomore class, was featured in the beauty section of the yearbook (later in life, her own press release described her as a tall, leggy brunette), and represented her junior class in the May Court. Welch took classes at the University of Georgia for teaching certification, as well as at the University of Wisconsin, where her husband did his master’s and doctoral studies in American history. In 1975 she received an honorary doctorate from the International Fine Arts College in Miami. She taught public school, at the University of Maryland, and at Winthrop College from 1982-1985, where she was Distinguished Visiting Professor of Merchandising and Design in the School of Consumer Science. It may have been while teaching that she realized the potential to plant the seeds of the history of her legacy, as she has generously donated archival material to several colleges and universities.
Welch held many titles during her career: fashion consultant and coordinator, boutique owner, entrepreneur, fashion designer, teacher, cosmetics designer, and corporate image consultant. Prior to opening her first shop in Alexandria in 1963, she was a fashion consultant for the women of Washington, charging $25 per hour for a shopping tour. Besides her own designs, her store also stocked pieces from high-profile designers like Halston and Oscar de la Renta.
Welch worked with many famous figures and groups; several of her pieces now are considered iconic. Over the course of her career, she partnered with at least five first ladies and seven presidents and presidential candidates from both parties. Records indicate her business received thousands of commissions for scarves from companies such as McDonald’s and IBM, organizations such as the American Medical Association and the US Marine Corps, numerous political parties and persons, and academic institutions such as the University of Rhode Island. Welch’s success in cultivating political customers from both sides may be due to the fact that she notoriously refused to reveal her political affiliation.
She credits herself with single-handedly reviving the political scarf in America, although she cites Yves Saint Laurent, who started the signature trend, as her inspiration. In 1960, Welch designed her iconic Frankie hostess gown, which became so popular that it sold for many years afterwards. According to promotional materials from her company, it can be tied eight different ways, “flows like a biblical garment,” and has sleeves inspired by Kabuki costume. Welch designed her first scarf, the Cherokee alphabet scarf, about 1967. She then went on to collaborate with Lady Bird Johnson on the first fashion show at the White House, held in 1968. Betty Ford approached her about a design for the Republican party at this event, resulting in a commission for a signature scarf for the 1968 Republican convention, and another fashion show titled the “GOP Fashion Parade.” Both Lady Bird Johnson and Betty Ford became devoted clients of Frankie Welch designs. Her recent obituary in Women’s Wear Daily states, “Boutique Owner, Washington Wives’ Fashion Consultant Frankie Welch Dies at 97.” Frankie Welch is described as one “who helped First Ladies, diplomats’ wives and other hobnobbers in the Beltway dress stylishly for more than 40 years….”
Welch flexed her business skills to the maximum. A program for the GOP Fashion Parade in the URI HTCC includes a Frankie Welch order form with four different designs in the Republican fabric, the price of a Republican Frankie dress being $50, with delivery in five weeks. In 1976, Betty Ford donated a custom-made Welch gown for the Smithsonian’s Hall of First Ladies. In 1982, Welch's daughter Genie took over the flagship store, and in that same decade, Welch was made the national spokesperson for the textile industry. The shop closed in 1990, but Welch’s career was not over yet, as she continued to design and teach. President Bush selected Welch to serve on the Textile and Clothing Board of the Department of Defense in 1991, and she was slated to serve on the Export Retail and Wholesaling Board of the Commerce Department through 1996. Frankie Welch passed away on September 2, 2021 at her home in Virginia.
Despite her massive body of work, Welch remains barely represented in collections outside of those to which she donated. By the 1980s “Frankie Welch” was no longer a household name, so it would be easy to dismiss her impact and the cultural significance of her designs. Welch’s designs were almost exclusively mass manufactured in large quantities, thus collectors and museums may not feel pressed to obtain pieces unless they have a more important connection or are a limited edition. Her early work has already passed its 50th anniversary, however, so institutions should reconsider collecting her work.
The origins of the Cherokee Alphabet scarf are difficult to identify, although certain elements have been repeated in various sources, so they have been compiled here as the most probable series of events. The origin of the scarf is usually dated to 1967, although 1966 and 1968 appear in the record as well. One account maintains that Virginia F. Rusk, the wife of then Secretary of State Dean Rusk, is credited with commissioning Welch to create an all-American design to give as gifts to visiting dignitaries. The Cherokee Alphabet design was also used to decorate U.S. embassies. Other accounts state that the scarf was first unveiled at the Virginia Museum, or the Athenaeum Museum in Alexandria, VA, or that it had already been designed and was then requested for use as a gift by the government. An article from 1969 has a completely different origin story, that it was designed to aid an Indian education fund. An undated (but probably mid to late 1970s) brochure lists the Cherokee Alphabet scarves at a price of $10 apiece. Welch’s marketing repeatedly reinforces the idea of this scarf’s American-ness, and that in general her designs are “simple and authentic.” Given that the birth of the Cherokee Alphabet scarf has a similar timeline as the American Indian Movement (AIM), it is surprising that there is no evidence of a link between the two. One might expect that AIM may have provided inspiration for its creation, or that the scarf was possibly worn by AIM supporters in Washington.
The article from 1969 by Ball is one of the few which presents a negative opinion on scarves. Ball states that “The scarf boom is part of the accessory-conscious, slap-dash look that dominates today’s fashion.” She goes on to describe Welch’s custom scarves, or “the Frankie fad,” as “low-key public relations gimmickry.” Contrary to Ball’s negative ideas about their use by corporations and clubs, Welch saw them as personal identification badges, allowing women to rise out of anonymity. Furthermore, Welch saw the use of signature scarves as an honest way of identifying one’s affiliations, which by her account were well hidden in the previous decade. In summary, it seems that while Welch found her scarves' blatant use of semiotics refreshing, others may have felt more cynical about being a walking advertisement for a company or a political group.
Pantsuits were a marker of the rise of feminism in Western European and American fashion at the end of the 1960s. Easy care polyester, from which this suit is made, further emancipated women from some of their invisible labor in the laundry room and at the ironing board. Given that Welch felt her designs helped women develop a stronger outward-projecting identity, it then seems unsurprising that she incorporated some of her textile designs into pantsuits. As her political identity has remained a mystery, we may never know if Welch considered herself a feminist, but this ensemble can certainly be linked to the movement. In her distinctly nonpartisan way she was disrupting the status quo through fashion.
Welch’s body of work is still relevant today regarding such topics as bipartisanship, gender, feminism, women in business and design, sustainability, and loungewear. She has largely remained unknown, although more recognition of her has been garnered in the past five years.
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The hang tag on the top includes the following information: No. S44 VI, Style 2000, Color Cherokee, Size 12, Price 75.00, 100% polyester.
The top also has an ILGWU tag (International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union), which dates the tag to pre-1974 based on its coloring.