If you are/were blessed to have a mother with superb design, sewing and fitting talents, then I know that you consider yourself a lucky gal! Especially when it comes to finding an outfit for a very fancy occasion. I’m in the midst of trying to find the “perfect little number” for my step-daughter, Monique’s, May Wedding and I miss having “Jo-Anne” here to whip it up.
Saldor Gowns 1941
When Joannie Crown finished school at the age of 16, she immediately entered into the trades. For her, Dressmaking. Of course, she didn’t start making dresses right away, she had to earn the distinction of being able to build a full garment by working her way through every aspect of the art. Growing up, I loved hearing her stories about her adventures in fashion in London in the late 1930′s and early 1940′s. A nimble seamstress, she soon left the area of the workroom where one was relegated to only install a zipper, or sew in a sleeve, or interface a collar all day long, every day. When proven that you did each task expertly, then and only then you would move onto the next. Unfortunately for some, there they remained. But not for Miss Crown! She had talent. And before long she was in the big room with the designers, working on full garments from cutting to sewing to fitting.
Her last employer before she left England after the war to live in Montreal, was with Saldor Gowns. Mr. Saldor (standing near the window in the photo) saw a spark in little Joannie (sitting near the window one to the right of Mr. Saldor). He was not surprised when she announced she was going across the pond (the first in her large family and of her many friends to be such a pioneer) to marry an American and one day have a shop of her own. He wished her well and they even kept in contact for a time.
I was rather young, maybe two or three, when I first knew that my mother was handy with needle and thread. And this was the case with many of the mothers in the suburban, Long Island town where I was growing up as a young child. Our house was one of the few featuring a “finished basement,” quite the rage in the early 1950′s. And it was down there in the large room built by my dad with the main purpose of having parties that mom and her neighborhood girlfriends would have “fashion shows.”
The Era of the Basement Fashion Shows
Often, she would tuck me in for my afternoon nap and tell me that when I awoke there would be a pretty new dress for me to try on! And there always was!
Sometime before I started going to kindergarten, Mom rented a storefront shop on the main street in the next town over. This was to be the first of many dressmaking shops that she would have in the different towns we lived in while I was growing up. The name on the sign was “STARR FASHIONS.” Dad built out the space with a workroom in the back and the front part of the store as the showroom.
The entire shop was painted in a beautiful shade of pink and the two tiny fitting room cubicles were hung with cream-colored silk drapes embossed with a bamboo-like design in black and gold. Large gilt-framed mirrors reflected back the images of the beautiful ladies that came in to try on and purchase the fashions.
There was a large glass counter filled with an assortment of costume jewelry, you know, that gorgeous costume jewelry from the 50′s. And the deep storefront window was a magical place filled with three lovely mannequins in their lacquered wigs (one blonde, one brunette, one redhead) each having flawless, fleshtone limbs.
Focussing at first on a Ready-To-Wear clothing line of fine quality women’s dresses and accessories and offering Alteration Services, Jo-Anne (her stage name so to speak) was quickly discovered by her customers to be a seamstress extraordinaire and soon her custom-made creations were in demand.
Starr at Starr Fashions c. 1958
Now, remember I mentioned that I was not yet in Kindergarten? Well, the plan was for me to attend a Nursery School for a few hours a day in a little house located just blocks away from the shop. This would give Jo-Anne time to dedicate to her new enterprise. Well, I was not a happy camper! I remember vividly that I did not like being dropped off with the ladies at the nursery and my mom leaving. Before this, my mom and I were inseparable. One week later, I was out of that place and happily spending the days with mom at the shop. I was given the job of rearranging the jewelry in the showcase, which I adored doing. I also liked to color coordinate the multitude of threads and seam bindings. But for the most part, I would just crawl around under the clothing racks getting in the way, particularly a circular one in the center of the showroom where I would pretend to be in a cave or a tent. I would dance around the mannequins in the shop window. But I knew instinctively that when the little antique bells hanging on a cranberry colored, silk-rope with tassels on the shop door rang, I was to scoot back to the workroom and busy myself with my coloring books while mommy attended to the ladies shopping for dresses. It didn’t take long before I was spending my days back at home with my toys and in my yard in the tender loving care of a large, grandmotherly type woman we affectionately called Nanny Bea!
STARR FASHIONS was a good practice run for mom. She knew that another dress shop was in her future, but being a stay-at-home mom in these formative years was really more important to her. So who benefitted from this? Me! Not only did I have my best friend and playmate back full time, but lots of beautiful dresses too! The three mannequins lived in our basement now, waiting for their next turn for glory in a shop window.
Mostly I remember the “first day of school” dresses. This was back in the day when school began after the dog days of summer ended and there was a fall nip in the air. Lovely plaids with Gingham trim, prints depicting apples and falling leaves were popular , as well as little corduroy pinafores.
First Day of Kindergarten – Fall 1959
Back-to-school shopping was always fun with mom. There would be a new metal lunchbox, crayons and construction paper, and of course fabric for my new dress. Lunch at the Woolworth’s counter and a new Super Pinkie to keep me occupied while mom sewed rounded out the day.
I always loved the corduroy pinafores the best! Even Val sported a custom-made shirt like this one from time to time. And mom always made herself a new red dress for the holidays.
And if my Patti Playpal had been a good girl too, she would often get a new outfit!
And, of course, there was always a new frock for picture day!
As the years went by we moved several times and mom always had a little shop. As Val and I got older and attended school all day, it was much easier for mom to live her dream, although she always managed to be at home in the afternoon after school. We lived in several different towns and sometimes the shop would be right in the front room of our house! We never thought it was weird to have mannequins in the windows, but I’m sure some of our friends did!
Our house in Bethpage where mom had her dressmaking shop in the front room with mannequins in the window! This was Easter Sunday and we were both sporting our grey suits. Mine was a houndstooth wool and instead of a bonnet I wore a snazzy little cap. Mom in her Jackie O pillbox and her chinchilla shrug.
The name of the shop changed through the years. The word boutique had become all the vogue, so now the sign read Jo-Anne’s Boutique. Starr Fashions now became her labeled-line of custom-ready-to-wear. Her last shop, in Huntington, NY, was called North Shore Boutique and her labels read Fashions by Jo-Anne.
Vintage Business Cards
When I was in high school the dress code became a little more relaxed and we were allowed to wear long pants and then eventually blue jeans. Mom was very busy with her clientele, so she sewed less for me, but still made all of my dresses. Some of them were micro-minis!
This was the time in my life when I learned the most about the dressmaking business. Although the majority of my after school hours were spent at the Jan Martin Dance Studio where I was a dancing teacher, I also helped quite a bit in my mom’s store. My specialities were cutting and hand finishing. I did not inherit my mom’s talent for sewing. But I did love design and I especially enjoyed shopping expeditions to the 7th Avenue garment district of NYC where each season we would shop for fabrics and accoutrement for her next line of creations. I can still see Jo-Anne, with her headband and black “fall” flying out as we returned home on the Long Island Expressway in her red Impala convertible with dozens of bolts of fabulous new fabrics hanging out of the back seat!
Jo-Anne in her “fall” and a psychedelic little number!
Mom retired from dressmaking and closed up shop in the late 70′s. She and dad were heading into their next adventure of becoming innkeepers. We bid farewell to the jewelry display counter and the mannequins (one was sans fingers by now!), sold to a young woman with dreams of having her own fashion shop.
And although the inn kept them hopping 24/7, mom was never too busy to make a new dress for me. These were the days of disco dancing dates and I was performing in shows all of the time. So my new dresses were glamorous and theatrical. During the ski season I would drive up to the inn in the Catskills to help my parents on the weekends. Mom would always carve out some time to strap on her pin cushion and powder up her hem marker. The next time I came up to help there would be a new dress for me!
This one-shoulder creation was a favorite of mine!
Then came the Atlanta Charisma days! My parents were Snowbirds now, living in Georgia for the winter months and returning to the Catskills for the rest of the year. There were always costumes to be made and mom tirelessly broke sewing machine needles on sequins, had Ostrich feathers up her nose and sewed countless rhinestones on to countless costumes. Without a doubt, Bobby Berkeley and I and our students were definitely draped in Haute Costume!
My most treasured dress that mom made for me was, of course, my wedding ensemble. It was a tailored affair in ivory French lace over silk. The short-sleeved, sheath dress featured a matching Bolero jacket and headpiece a la Ruby Keeler!
After Adrien came along in 1990, I became a stay-at-home mom. There was little need for fancy dresses for a while. But on the rare occasion that I needed something special, mom was always ready to take on the task. Little Adrien was lucky enough to have a few outfits custom made by his Nana too!
Jo-Anne always enjoyed a nice fabric store.
Valentine’s Day Outfit by Nana
Easter Sunday Outfit by Nana
Colorful Jumpsuits by Nana
I wore the last dress that Jo-Anne ever worked on for me during a trip to Canada in July 2005. I didn’t know at the time that she was gravely ill and it must have taken every ounce of her fortitude to accomplish the work on this one last fashion for me.
Just three weeks later she was gone. But not before we spent her last days talking and laughing. How I treasure having had the chance to hear, once again, all of those stories from when she was a young woman in wartime London including her days at Saldor Gowns.
On her last day, she told me that she had picked out the dress she would like to be laid to rest in. I found it hanging on the back of her closet door. A lovely brown and cream colored sheath with a matching jacket. As I inspected it, I found that she had prepared the hem but had not sewn it. The evening before we had her life celebration, it honored me deeply to be able to sew these last stitches for her knowing that for every one I made she had made thousands for me.
It was several years before I needed to get a “fancy” dress. When my step-son, Philippe, married in 2009, I shopped and shopped until I found an elegantly simple sheath in iridescent teal silk. I loved it immediately and knew that mom would have approved. It wasn’t until days later when I was bringing it to Lolita, my wonderful surrogate dressmaker, for alterations, that I noticed the label and tag…
I knew my Angel Mom had a little something to do with finding my perfect dress!
And, just this past weekend, I began my quest to find “the” dress for Monique’s wedding and lo and behold, the first dress I picked out, but the last one to try on after 14 others was the one I fell in love with. Guess what the label and tag said?
A stitch in time,