That Proper Dress
By Carolyn Kolb
“As far as I was concerned, it was ‘one-stop shopping,’” Judy Walshe Whann (Mrs. Robert Whann) remembers fondly.
The late Emily Hayne Walker (Mrs. James Alexander “Dixie” Walker) was the remarkable woman who owned and presided over Town and Country Shop for most of its existence. “Em,” as she was known, had scored a unique New Orleans social double play: She was the only woman ever to reign over the krewes of both Rex (1923) and Comus (1924), (when she stood in for a sister who married in her debut year).
The 1931 New Orleans City Directory lists Emily Hayne’s residence at her parents’ home, while she was employed as a saleslady at D. H. Holmes and Company – a firm at which her father served as a vice president, in addition to his ownership of a real estate company. In the 1932 directory, Emily Hayne is listed as the owner of the Town and Country Shop, located at 1432 St. Charles Ave., which would be its address for over half a century of her personal oversight.
The women who worked at Town and Country were often from Uptown families and were convivial as well as knowledgeable. Whann’s mother, the late Katie Walshe (Mrs. William Walshe), spent a career at Town and Country – she had had a children’s shop with a partner, then Town and Country Shop absorbed it as the children’s department.
Susan Jones Gundlach (Mrs. James Gundlach) admits that the store was “pretty much where I bought my clothes.” She also remembers that, “at 5 o’clock, some of the ladies who worked there would have their little cocktail.”
Town and Country Shop was a party place in many ways.
Louise Reiss Rogas (Mrs. Gene Rogas) had a long career at Town and Country, and is best remembered as a particularly discerning buyer on her trips to New York to stock the racks with gowns. When she arrived in 1959, she had no retail experience. “I think Emily took me on ‘spec,’” she admits. “In fact, I had just come home from Washington and I had worked for the Central Intelligence Agency for five years.”
Perhaps her espionage background came in handy during Carnival: “We had to know the queens ahead of time,” Rogas recalls. Town and Country at one time had seamstresses who made bridal gowns and queens’ dresses, and then, when they focused on ready-to-wear, the shop still fitted gowns. “We did whole balls; we always did Osiris,” she recalls.
Bessie Derby Miller (Mrs. Stephen Miller of Baltimore) was a maid in Osiris and was fitted for her gown at Town and Country. Besides clothes, Ms. Miller credited Town and Country with imparting important knowledge. “They would help you with your curtsey and how you held yourself in the gown,” she says. “Your confidence was impacted, too.”
Evening gowns were an important part of Town and Country’s allure. As Rogas notes, “ We did an enormous debutante business. In fact we carried more individual debutante dresses than any store in the United States – because we could only have one of each.”
Town and Country buyers searched out those racks of white dresses. “We were extremely well known in that market in New York. A lot of the gowns were from bridal houses but many of them were from expensive evening houses. We carried more than Neiman Marcus or Saks,” Rogas says.
She credits the shop’s success to its wide range of merchandise. “It was a broad brush – we covered everything from children to old ladies.” Some boutiques today might have “a few lines [of dresses] in depth but we must have carried 200 different lines. It was a big broad spectrum, from inexpensive to expensive, from ball gowns to sportswear. We even had stockings.”
Customers could buy baby gifts, decorative items and purses. And, best of all, they could shop the summer and winter sales.
“They were legendary. People used to line up around the corner. It was hilarious.” Rogas says. The sales’ popularity was well deserved: “We really gave everybody a good buy and the clothes were wonderful, innovative things.”
The sales were also a good marketing tool: “We never lost any money on sales, and we sure got some stuff out of there,” Rogas says. “We had people who only shopped with us twice a year but boy, they bought!”
Unique clothes, good value and personal attention: all added up to Town and Country’s mystique. Kit Wisdom remembers being at a Town and Country sale with a friend, as they tossed things over the dressing room walls to each other, and hearing nearby a plaintive voice inquire: “ Is it all right for somebody who’s 32 to wear a sleeveless dress?” Em Walker answered, “Of course it is!” “We laughed over that for years – we were about 22 back then,” Wisdom says.
Customers at Town and Country were catered to – and if something didn’t fit properly (sleeveless or not) it could be altered. It was the “most fabulous alterations department in town,” says Rogas. “They could do anything. Those women knew how to sew and fit. They fit all the debs. Some customers wouldn’t let another soul touch their clothes.” The alterations department could work wonders, but “that one we never made any money on – it was a service, a real service.”
It was the personal service that marked Town and Country. Whann notes, “During debuts, they all helped. They had seen my daughter grow up. It was just like one big family.” Em Walker herself was a draw: “You want to see the owner when you go in, it really makes a difference,” says Gundlach.
“Everybody would call me by name and remember the colors I liked, and the kinds of things I liked,” says Wisdom, “or somebody would call and say we’ve put something aside for you.”
Adelaide Wisdom Benjamin (Mrs. Edward Benjamin) remembers what she loved best, “they had this big room, the farthest away from the front door, and it had triple mirrors and several chairs – a place for my mother to watch while I tried on dresses. Em would sit and talk to us, and she knew everything in her shop – she’d say ‘get that pale lavender’ and they would get it and it would be perfect!”
After Emily Hayne Walker died in 1986, the shop went out of her family.
Louise Rogas cherishes fond memories. Working at Town and Country “could be anything you wanted it to be,” she says. Besides being a buyer (along with her friends, the late Dolly Ann Souchon Johnsen and Mickey Dureau, and Patty O’Brien), she pitched in to dress the windows and write the advertising.
She says, “I never took a vacation. I absolutely loved that business.”