Spotlight on: A Family Fashion Artifact

I spent a portion of the winter holidays back in my hometown of New York City, and in addition to participating in frantic shopping, and catching up on some fantastic museum exhibitions, I was the thrilled recipient of a small and eloquent piece of New York fashion and retailing history. In my Cabbage Patch Kid stocking (circa 1983) this year, my Mom passed on to me a fashion accessory that we believe belonged to my maternal great-grandmother. Strange to our eyes now, this metal tool ending in a small hook, was once an ordinary part of a woman’s dressing ritual accoutrements.

The dress hook was utilised to close the numerous and fussy buttons on Victorian and early 20th century garments. Think of high-buttoned turn of the century shirtwaists, deep blouse cuffs and the dainty buttons on fine boots.

Dress hooks in a 19th century catalog

Without a lady’s maid or other helping hand it is nearly impossible to fasten such buttons on both sides of the body! Thus, the dress hook was a handy tool to make dressing an easier task.

My great-grandmother’s dress hook was not only a nifty time saver, it was also a promotional item for famed downtown New York City department store, Wanamaker’s. The handle of the hook is stamped with their signature, and I imagine these were given away with purchases as a customer bonus.

Vintage postcard depicting the Wanamaker building, NYC

While Wanamaker’s is not as well known as other department stores such as Macy’s or Bloomingdale’s, it was a domonant presence on lower Broadway in the early 20th century.

The Wanamaker building now houses contemporary retail giants Gap and Ann Taylor on the ground floor, but it was once a multi-floor shopping palace inspired by the model of grand European shopping arcades.

Broadway and Wanamaker Place, New york City, Dec. 27, 2011

I took a stroll down to Broadway and 9th Street, to see the old Wanamaker building up close, and was pleased to discover that the South cross street between the former store building and Broadway is named Wanamaker Place.  So, although dress hooks have faded from necessity, and the shopping palace of Belle Epoque New York has given over to modern brand outlets, the name of Wanamaker shall still be spoken on the streets of New York. Test a cabbie next time you’re heading downtown, “Take me to Broadway and Wanamaker place, I need a new dress hook…”

For more information on the rise of the department store in Europe and the USA, check out these recommendations from my fashion library:

The Ladies’ Paradise, by Emil Zola

When Ladies Go A-Thieving, by Elaine S. Abelson

The Department Store: History, Design Display, by Jan Whitaker

The Grand Emporiums: The Illustrated History of America’s Great Department Stores, by Robert Hendrickson

The Urge to Splurge: A Social History of Shopping, by Laura Paquet

Related Articles

1 Comment

  • Ana Maria Pinto Carey January 25, 2012 01.51 pm

    Gracias Prima: Me gusto mucho tu articulo que lo pude leer gracias al traductor simultaneo de Google. Es muy interesante re-conocer la historia a través de la ropa y sus accesorios.

    Desde Chile con cariño


Leave a Comment

Monthly Archive


Available now: Punk Style by Worn Through founder, Monica Sklar, PhD. Find it at :, Powell's Books, or a bookseller near you.