That steady hum in the August air in New Orleans may not be summer insects – it could be the whirr of countless sewing machines as seamstresses of the city get ready for another formal social season.
Debutante gowns, Mardi Gras finery and those special outfits needed for very special occasions don’t always come ready-made from a shop. Orleanians quite often choose a more personal manner of acquiring new clothes, and there are a variety of creative hands ready to bring dreams to reality.
CHRONICLES OF RECENT HISTORY:Whether they began in business by helping a neighbor, grew up in a sewing family, came to it via museum work or hold a college degree in the subject, these New Orleans women have made careers out of creating memorable clothing.
Gladys Maginnis, now 90 years old, first learned her craft in a family enterprise – creating carnival costumes. By the time she was 18, she was designing fanciful costumes for the Uptown carnival Krewe for young people – Apollo. She went on to create countless debutante dresses, queen’s and maid’s gowns and a wealth of other items for happy clients. “She designed such beautiful things for my mother, especially the ball gowns,” Betty Wisdom remembers.
Mrs. Maginnis’ last ball gown was a 2005 white presentation dress for one of her grand-daughter’s debut in California. “It was all tucked across the top, strapless, in Italian Dupioni silk, with a big, big bow in the back, with streamers; ended up in a slight train,” she recounts. Silk is her favorite fabric, but “I’ve made at least five wedding gowns out of lace tablecloths,” she admits. Another favorite material comes from Indian saris, “that’s magnificent fabric.”
She made her own wedding gown, “out of pure silk organza, with a lace collar,” and she made Corinne Waterman’s wedding gown when she married Delesseps Morrison, before he became mayor of New Orleans in 1946. Today, Mrs. Maginnis is still sewing. “I’m making tote bags – it’s occupational therapy, kid!” she laughs.
As for changes, one is in cost, with prices being “over $10,000 for a queen’s gown these days,” and the price of silk fabric has increased tenfold. Another regrettable change is the vogue for strapless gowns, because “you can enhance a figure more if you don’t have to have it strapless,” she notes.
Judy Cobb, at Alice Designs, 8200 Hampson Street, began sewing while at Metairie Park Country Day School, in a program called “Interest Activities.” Mrs. Norman Boothby, Sr., the headmaster’s wife, taught sewing and weaving. “Their philosophy was to develop the entire child,” Mrs. Cobb remembers.
That early skill was put to good use for herself and her daughters, and when a neighbor, Alice DePass, began designing dresses and sewing them, Mrs. Cobb was a willing helper. After Mrs. DePass moved away, Mrs. Cobb kept the business, and the name.
One memorable client in those early days was a prize-fighter. “A boxer wanted us to design and make his satin robe and boxing shorts, and we did!” Today, her feminine clientele includes debutantes and their mothers. “I make clothes for their debuts, white dresses, queen’s dresses, evening gowns for the mothers and suits and cocktail dresses for the girls,” Mrs. Cobb explains.
She has noticed some changes in body shape. “Very few of them have 24- or 25-inch waistlines anymore. I think that’s because they work out so much and their bodies are so fit.” Most debutantes “have a definite idea of what look they want,” and “some take their mothers’ advice,” while some don’t. Fuller skirts for ball gowns are a necessity, and the very short skirt for cocktail wear is out, but the girls “wear these really high heels with their party clothes: stilettos,” Mrs. Cobb reports.
Cathie Stuckey holds a degree in Fashion Design from the University of Houston, and first learned to sew from her mother and grandmother in Texas. Later years found her in New Orleans as the buyer for the bath shop at D.H. Holmes department store. At a holiday party, her self-designed and created dress attracted the attention of a friend, who recommended her to a fabric shop owner. Mrs. Stuckey supervised the design room at the shop, began creating clothing and when the store closed, she began taking private clients.
“I’m a designer of one-of-a-kind formal wear,” she explains. She talks to the debutantes and their mothers, listens to their ideas, then shows them some sketches and makes a mock-up of the gown in muslin before cutting the real fabric.
Debutante dresses may sometimes have a second use. “They will wear something for one ball, and maybe will go back and add beading to it or change the neckline,” for a second ball, or sometimes sisters will wear the same dress with changes. “I’ve had a few clients use one of their presentation dresses that they really love for a wedding gown. We would add more fabric to make a train, and put more beading on it.” The beading requires thousands of beads, which are imported from Asia, with crystals coming from Austria and Czechoslovakia.
Surprisingly, some of the most difficult work involves the engineering problems entailed in supporting a cumbersome krewe-owned mantel on the shoulders of a slim, young girl. Queens of Carnival, and other major balls, “have to have a corset fitted to them that has aluminum bands over the shoulder that go down the front and down the back to support the weight of the mantel.” As Mrs. Stuckey explains, “the dress itself is attached to the corset with big hooks and eyes.” With all that beading, dresses can be weighty affairs. “One year we weighed a dress and I think it was 26 pounds!” she says.
Mary Williams is “really a couturier, not a dressmaker,” her happy client Tina Freeman insists. Mrs. Williams learned to sew at home, but her first love was art and she went to the University of New Orleans as a Fine Arts major. As a freshman, she began an internship with the clothing collection at the Louisiana State Museum. “All I did all day was play with the clothes, play with textiles,” Mrs. Williams remembers fondly. She worked dating clothes, making patterns from the clothing and cataloguing the collection.
Since her husband participated in Civil War re-enactments, Mrs. Williams began creating historically accurate costumes, including some for the St. Francisville Pilgrimage. Currently she puts those skills to work creating costumes for Mystic, the krewe in which wives of members form the court are costumed in a different period each year.
Mrs. Williams also creates dresses for Fleur de Paris, the French Quarter shop on the corner of Pirate’s Alley and Royal Street, where the well-heeled clientele mainly hails from out of town. She also worked on costumes for the film “Interview with the Vampire.” For her own clients, “I have a tendency to dress people who are self-confident,” which she defines as “wear[ing] the clothes instead of the clothes wearing you.” Her skills in re-creating historical clothing serve her well in her contemporary work. “I incorporate a lot of the same construction,” Mrs. Williams notes, and she also makes separate corsets.
Sadly, most of Mrs. Williams’ personal clothing was lost when her Lakeview home flooded in Katrina. Surprisingly, the fabric that fared best was that dressmaker’s favorite, pure silk.
As any good seamstress knows, quality lasts.