Woman's Dress Suit by Guy LaRoche
The dress has 40” bust circumference; 36” waist circumference; 40” hip circumference (101.6 cm; 91.4 cm; 101.6 cm)
Length from high shoulder point to hem is 41 1⁄4” long (104.75 cm)
To fall at just below the knee, the wearer would have to be around 5’7” (1.7 meters)
This is a material culture analysis, using Fleming’s Artifact Study Model, of a shift dress with a matching jacket from the University of Rhode Island’s Historic Textile and Costume Collection. Dr. Beverly D. Cusack, dean of the College of Home Economics at URI, donated the suit to the university in 1971. According to the accession notes, it was purchased in 1954 in New York for $350.00. The labels identify the designer as French couturier Guy LaRoche, that the garments were made in France by Maria Carine, and that it was sold by Hovland-Swanson. The jacket label has a hand-written number on the back of it, “14669_1”, possibly the design number from LaRoche. There is a tape label, with very faint and illegible handwritten text, sewn in the proper left back shoulder of the dress.
Dr. Cusack (née Downing) was born in 1923. She received a bachelor’s degree from URI and master’s and doctoral degrees from Columbia University. She was married to James E. Cusack. She joined the URI faculty in 1948, becoming dean in 1962. Dr. Cusack retired in 1974, and died a little less than a year later. (1)
This is a two piece set of shift dress and jacket in a cream color wool. Each is made of the same plain-weave, slubbed wool. The yarns are 2 ply, S-twist and the thread count (taken from the center back dress panel) is 26 yarns per inch vertically by 24 yarns per inch horizontally. The dress lining is a fine, almost transparent china silk, while dress facings are made of a slightly heavier rayon taffeta of the same color. This fabric may also have been used for the suit. For both garments, machine stitching is primarily used in the long seams and darts. Hand stitching was used for seam allowance finishes, attaching the closures, and hems.
The jacket has a slightly blouson silhouette and three-quarter length sleeves cut-in-one with the bodice, unusually long vertical bust darts, and princess seams on the front which are carefully patterned to match the underarm gusset seams. The center-front closure has three bound buttonholes wth cream-colored, plstic domed buttons. The waistband closes with hook and thread-chain bar, hidden by a small self-fabric bow.
The sleeveless shift dress consists of only three main pattern
pieces (see illustration). The silk lining is sewn as one to the fashion fabric. The dress has a slight shaping at the waist which comes from its unique darting and seaming. The dress closes in the center back with a hand-picked invisible zipper.
Research has determined that the original curatorial information is probably inaccurate. LaRoche did not open his maison until 1957 (2) and Hovland-Swanson was a department store located in Lincoln, Nebraska. A store directory confirms that they did have a Designer Shop. (3) Given these discrepancies, the suggested cost of the dress should be reconsidered as well.
The designer label is similar to others from the early 1960s, but no 1950’s labels have been found for comparison. Maria Carine opened in 1953, and manufactured authorized prêt-à-porter (ready to wear) for the haute couture (high fashion) designers. The fabrics were the same as those used in the couture versions and seams were hand-finished. In 1957 the company began exporting to the American market, which coincides with LaRoche’s opening. In 1967, Maria Carine was taken over by a rival company. (4) Given the timelines of the two companies, the ensemble dates to sometime between 1957 and 1967. The style and silhouette of the ensemble fits with late 1950s to very early 1960s haute couture design.
No comparable garments were found by LaRoche, in fact extant garments from his early years appear to be scarce. Patterns of LaRoche’s designs were licensed by Vogue Patterns by autumn of 1957. (5) Pattern illustrations between 1958 and 1960 have some similarities to the ensemble studied: bloused jackets, bows, the looser, rounded silhouette of the shoulders and arms, and the knee-length hem. His early patterns seemed to feature only fitted dresses, so a comparable shift pattern cannot be identified. The labels and the style of the design indicate that the ensemble is an authentic LaRoche design, not of haute couture manufacture, but from an authorized prêt-à-porter and very close to the original.
This ensemble straddles a period of tension between two culturally disparate eras, which of course was reflected in fashion. The conservative, consumeristic, and conformist 1950s had highly gendered clothing, with mature women as the ideal figure. Women’s fashions looked impractically backwards to previous historical eras, and a woman’s clothing was expected to reflect her husband’s success. Paris couture rose from the ashes of World War II and reigned supreme once more. A woman like Dr. Cusack, with not only a career, but a doctoral degree would have been an exception to this trend, although her work was within a socially acceptable field. Fashion in the 1960s, conversely, championed the underdeveloped adolescent figure, flipped to a trickle-up model, and blurred gender lines. The haute couture houses diversified with options like ready-to-wear in order to survive. (6)
The waistless “chemise” or “sack” style, the silhouette on which this ensemble is based, appeared in haute couture in 1957. Sears was offering mass-manufactured versions of this style as early as 1958. The de-emphasizing of the bust and waist through looser silhouettes at the time was seen as youthful. (7) Women’s Wear Daily’s coverage of LaRoche in the early years of his opening offers contemporary opinions for his early designs, as well as some insights from LaRoche himself.
LaRoche’s design philosophy was sensible, “wearable models but nothing sumptuous,” believing that haute couture shouldn’t be created in a vacuum. For LaRoche, texture, color, and silhouette were equally important. He strived for high craftsmanship without extravagant and expensive decoration that would be risky for business. Despite his market of a youthful consumer and his savvy licensing, he did not want any business relationships that would diminish the dignity of his work. (8)
Articles in the fashion press generally mirror LaRoche’s own views of his work. His early lines were described as young and forward-looking, colorful, wearable, and were recognized for their popularity on the American market. They were initially popular initially with the juniors market, then quickly shifted to women of various ages who were “young at heart.” One journalist pointed him out “for quality designs at non-fabulous prices.”
Initially his designs were viewed as avant-garde and similar to Givenchy. In an article about hemlines he was placed with Dior as being a more middle-of-the-road designer, not too extreme, but not out of date. Two years after his first collection the press pegged him as moving away from the avant garde. The public’s response to LaRoche’s first line was recorded by one journalist. They thought of them as “nice clothes,” “young and wearable,” and contrary to the aforementioned characterization of avant garde, “nothing extreme.” (9)
The ensemble studied is fairly consistent with many of the properties ascribed to LaRoche’s designs. The texture, color, and silhouette are equally balanced. It is made of high-quality materials and the construction is of a high standard. It doesn’t have extraneous or luxurious details such as embroidery or bejeweled trims and buttons. The dress is certainly youthful and forward-looking in its silhouette, shorter hemline, and lack of sleeves. Except for the impracticality of upkeep of an ivory-colored ensemble, it is certainly “wearable.”
Dr. Cusack, the donor, would have been in her mid to late 30s, and on the cusp of becoming a dean when purchasing this ensemble. Her age and position of authority contrasts with the idea of LaRoche’s designs as youthful, but not with the themes of desiring high quality, wearable clothes. Women in the 1950s and 1960s were faced with the new problem of determining what was appropriate to wear in a business setting. In the early 1960s, Jacqueline Kennedy’s style of a shift dress worn with a matching short jacket became a standard workwear choice. (10) Dr. Cusack’s ensemble is reminiscent of a man’s suit, but the overall effect is feminine, thereby balancing her gender with the gravity of her station. Light colors are sometimes associated with a higher economic status because of the trouble and expense of upkeep. In the workplace, however, dark colors are generally considered more professional, so perhaps this suit was for church, holidays, and social functions.
To the modern eye, LaRoche’s ensemble, as well his other early designs, look much like those of other couturiers of the period. This makes sense, given how much contemporary press compared him to other designers, and his desire to have a successful business more than to be known as an artist. Monocolor, pared-down styles with large buttons and a skimming silhouette, have primarily been revisited in modern media through old movies and television shows. Most people would associate such an outfit with Audrey Hepburn, Mary Tyler Moore, or Jackie Kennedy, for its understated chic. These women have achieved style icon status.
Their status was renewed with my generation in the 2010s with the show Mad Men. Millennials were already familiar with retro style from watching classic movies with their grandparents and reruns on Nick at Nite and TVLand, as well satirical takes on midcentury media such as The Truman Show and Pleasantville. It took Mad Men, however, to spur mainstream fashion to a retro renaissance. Yet, with the rise of generation Z, a generation that loves Friends and considers 1990’s fashion as the new retro, one has to wonder if early 1960’s fashion will continue to be upheld as the epitome of chic in the future or be considered simply outdated. (11)
In opposition to generation Z’s love of normcore fashion, the opulence and progressiveness of the Roaring Twenties had already been predicted as a possible fashion influence for this decade. Some believe that history will repeat itself and post-pandemic life will take on the same flashiness in fashion to celebrate. The 1960s shift dress fashion was highly influenced by the 1920s, so it doesn’t seem unreasonable. On the other hand, many people have shifted away from cities to suburbia, and many women have dropped out of the workforce. Even if they return, perhaps a swing back to conservatism reminiscent of the 1950s or 1980s will occur in fashion. (12)
1) "Social Security Death Index," s.v. "Beverly Cusack" (1923-2075), Ancestry.com; “Dr. B. Cusack,” Obituaries, Providence Journal, July 1, 1975, 64; “Dr. Beverly Cusack,” Providence Journal, May 31, 1974, 13; “Cusack, Beverly (Downing),” Obituaries and Death Notices, Providence Journal, July 2, 1975, 59.
2) Charlotte Mankey Calasibetta, Fairchild’s Dictionary of Fashion, 2nd ed. (New York: Fairchild Books, 1998), 643.
3) BAK, “Hovland-Swanson,” The Department Store Museum (blog), September 2001, http://www.thedepartmentstoremuseum.org/2011/09/hovland-swanson-lincoln-nebraska.html.
4) Lizzie Bramlett, “Laroche, Guy,” Label Resource, The Vintage Fashion Guild, July 18, 2021, https://vintagefashionguild.org/label-resource/laroche-guy/; Vintagiality, “Maria Carine,” Label Resource, The Vintage Fashion Guild, September 27, 2010, https://vintagefashionguild.org/label-resource/carine-maria/.
5) “Fabrics at Retail: LaRoche, Patterson Styled Added by Vogue Patterns,” Fabrics at Retail, Women’s Wear Daily, October 14, 1957.
6) Daniel Delis Hill, American Menswear: From the Civil War to the Twenty-First Century (Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University Press, 2011), 210-12, 236-237, 285; Valerie Mendes and Amy de la Haye, Fashion Since 1900 (London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd. Hill, 2012), 158-60.
7) François Baudot, Fashion: The 20th Century (New York: Universe, 2006), 158; Joy Shih, Fashionable Clothing from the Sears Catalogs: Late 1950s (Atglen, PA: Schiffer, 1997), 27; Aileen Ribeiro, Dress and Morality (London: Batsford, 1986), 168; Jessica Daves, “Paris Collections,” Vogue, March 1958, 106.
8) “New House Concentrates on Low, Belted Straight Line,” Women’s Wear Daily, February 4, 1957, 4; A.D. Galloway, “Young Spirit in New Couturier’s First Show,” Women’s Wear Daily, February 26, 1957, 1; M.D. de la Prade, “Paris Says Normal, Supple Waist: Big Sleeves, Giant Pockets, Scooped Up Bateau Cited: Paris Fashions,” Women’s Wear Daily, January 19, 1959, 32; Bernadine Taub, “'A Couturier Should Concentrate On the Couture Business': Non-Conflicting Products,” Women’s Wear Daily, April 6, 1959, 5.
9) Galloway, “Young Spirit”; “Trade Praises Dior’s Cuts, Lanvin’s Evening Clothes,” Women’s Wear Daily, August 8, 1957, 4; M.D.L., "Today...In Paris," Women’s Wear Daily, February 7, 1957, 2; Paris Bureau, “Paris...Late News,” Women’s Wear Daily, July 10, 1957, 40; John B. Fairchild, “Balenciaga, Givenchy Cited As Tops in Creative Fashion,” Women’s Wear Daily, August 2, 1957, 1; Taub, “A Couturier,” 5; “Back From Paris, Trade Praises Dior's Chemises,” Women’s Wear Daily, August 6, 1957, 4; John B. Fairchild, “Personalities of Paris Couture,” Women’s Wear Daily, January 9, 1959, 23; D.L.W., “---’nice clothes’,” Women’s Wear Daily, March 6, 1957, 2, 63.
10) Jennifer Paff Ogle and Mary Lynn Damhorst, “Dress for Success in the Popular Press,” in Appearance and Power, eds. Kim K.P. Johnson and Sharron J. Lennon (Oxford: Bloomsbury Academic, 1999), Berg Fashion Library, http://dx.doi.org.uri.idm.oclc.org/10.2752/9781847887221/AANDPOWER0008; Shari Sims, “Work and the Wardrobe: Women,” in Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion, ed. Phyllis G. Tortora (Oxford: Bloomsbury Academic, 2010), Berg Fashion Library, http://dx.doi.org.uri.idm.oclc.org/10.5040/9781847888525.EDch031915.
11) Nancy Liu, “Friends: Why Generation Z LOVES the ’90s Sitcom,” CBR, March 8, 2020, https://www.cbr.com/friends-generation-z-loves-90s-sitcom/.
12) Pandora Amoratis, “The New Roaring '20s! Top Fashion Designers Reveal the Style Trends We Have to Look Forward to Post Pandemic,” Daily Mail, January 20, 2021, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-9161073/Top-fashion-designers-reveal-new-Roaring-20s-fashion-trends. html; Greta Jelen, “What a Return of The Roaring ‘20s Would Mean For Fashion,” L’Officiel, January 1, 2015; Jacob Gallagher and Rory Satran, “Fashion: No More Sweatpants: What We’ll Wear Post-Pandemic,” Wall Street Journal, May 22, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/no-more-sweatpants-what-well-wear-post-pandemic-11590166062; Megan Cerullo, “Nearly 3 Million U.S. Women Have Dropped Out of the Labor Force in the Past Year,” CBS News, February 5, 2021, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/covid-crisis-3-million-women-labor-force/; Avery Hartmans, “Millennials and Gen Z are fleeing cities and buying up homes in the suburbs amid the coronavirus pandemic,” Insider, November 20, 2020, https://www.businessinsider.com/millennials-gen-z-leaving-cities-for-suburbs-amid-pandemic-2020-11.
Amoratis, Pandora. “The New Roaring '20s! Top Fashion Designers Reveal the Style Trends We Have to Look Forward to Post Pandemic.” Daily Mail, January 20, 2021. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-9161073/Top-fashion-designers-reveal-new-R oaring-20s-fashion-trends.html.
“Back From Paris, Trade Praises Dior's Chemises.” Women’s Wear Daily, August 6, 1957.
BAK. “Hovland-Swanson.” The Department Store Museum (blog), September 2001. http://www.thedepartmentstoremuseum.org/2011/09/hovland-swanson-lincoln-nebraska. html.
Baudot, François. Fashion: The 20th Century. New York: Universe, 2006.
Bramlett, Lizzie. “Laroche, Guy.” Label Resource. The Vintage Fashion Guild, July 18, 2021. https://vintagefashionguild.org/label-resource/laroche-guy/.
Calasibetta, Charlotte Mankey. Fairchild’s Dictionary of Fashion. 2nd edition. New York: Fairchild Books, 1998.
Cerullo, Megan. “Nearly 3 Million U.S. Women Have Dropped Out of the Labor Force in the Past Year.” CBS News, February 5, 2021. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/covid-crisis-3-million-women-labor-force/.
“Cusack, Beverly (Downing).” Obituaries and Death Notices. Providence Journal ( Providence, RI), July 2, 1975.
Daves, Jessica. “Paris Collections.” Vogue, March 1958.
de la Prade, M.D. “Paris Says Normal, Supple Waist: Big Sleeves, Giant Pockets, Scooped Up
Bateau Cited: Paris Fashions.” Women’s Wear Daily, January 19, 1959.
D.L.W. “---’nice clothes’.” Women’s Wear Daily, March 6, 1957.
“Dr. B. Cusack.” Obituaries. Providence Journal (Providence, RI), July 1, 1975.
“Dr. Beverly Cusack.” Providence Journal (Providence, RI), May 31, 1974.
“Fabrics at Retail: LaRoche, Patterson Styled Added by Vogue Patterns.” Women’s Wear Daily, October 14, 1957.
Fairchild, John B. “Balenciaga, Givenchy Cited As Tops in Creative Fashion.” Women’s Wear Daily, August 2, 1957.
Fairchild, John B. “Personalities of Paris Couture.” Women’s Wear Daily, January 9, 1959.
Fleming, E. McClung. 1974. "Artifact Study: A Proposed Model." Winterthur Portfolio 9: 153-173.
Gallagher, Jacob and Rory Satran. “Fashion: No More Sweatpants: What We’ll Wear Post-Pandemic.” Wall Street Journal, May 22, 2020. https://www.wsj.com/articles/no-more-sweatpants-what-well-wear-post-pandemic-11590 166062.
Galloway, A.D. “Young Spirit in New Couturier’s First Show.” Women’s Wear Daily. February 26, 1957.
Hartmans, Avery. “Millennials and Gen Z are Fleeing Cities and Buying Up Homes in the Suburbs Amid the Coronavirus Pandemic.” Insider, November 20, 2020. https://www.businessinsider.com/millennials-gen-z-leaving-cities-for-suburbs-amid-pand emic-2020-11.
Hill, Daniel Delis. American Menswear: From the Civil War to the Twenty-First Century. Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University Press, 2011.
Liu, Nancy. “Friends: Why Generation Z LOVES the ’90s Sitcom.” CBR, March 8, 2020. https://www.cbr.com/friends-generation-z-loves-90s-sitcom/.
M.D.L. "Today...In Paris." Women’s Wear Daily, February 7, 1957.
Mendes, Valerie and Amy de la Haye. Fashion Since 1900. London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd. Hill, 2012.
“New House Concentrates on Low, Belted Straight Line,” Women’s Wear Daily, February 4, 1957.
Ogle, Jennifer Paff and Mary Lynn Damhorst. “Dress for Success in the Popular Press.” In Appearance and Power, edited by Kim K.P. Johnson and Sharron J. Lennon. Oxford: Bloomsbury Academic, 1999. Berg Fashion Library. http://dx.doi.org.uri.idm.oclc.org/10.2752/9781847887221/AANDPOWER0008.
Paris Bureau. “Paris...Late News.” Women’s Wear Daily, July 10, 1957.
Ribeiro, Aileen. Dress and Morality. London: Batsford, 1986.
Shih, Joy. Fashionable Clothing from the Sears Catalogs: Late 1950s. Atglen, PA: Schiffer, 1997.
Sims, Shari. “Work and the Wardrobe: Women.” In Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion, edited by Phyllis G. Tortora. Oxford: Bloomsbury Academic, 2010. Berg Fashion Library,http://dx.doi.org.uri.idm.oclc.org/10.5040/9781847888525.EDch031915.
“Social Security Death Index.” s.v. “Beverly Cusack” (1923-2075). Ancestry.com. Accessed March 11, 2021.
Taub, Bernadine. “'A Couturier Should Concentrate On the Couture Business': Non-Conflicting Products.” Women’s Wear Daily, April 6, 1959.
“Trade Praises Dior’s Cuts, Lanvin’s Evening Clothes.” Women’s Wear Daily, August 8, 1957.
Vintagiality. “Maria Carine.” Label Resource. The Vintage Fashion Guild, September 27, 2010. https://vintagefashionguild.org/label-resource/carine-maria/.
Dean of the College of Home Economics, 1962-1974
University of Rhode Island