It’s been several generations since the fashionable ideal was a woman in her 30s or 40s (the ubiquity of model Lisa Fonssagrives Penn in the pages of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar in the 1950s, for example), so it may be slightly difficult for many readers to imagine or recall a time when young adults in their teenage years were awkward outliers of the fashion world. Nowadays, the sophistication of a woman older than her teens may be inferred through clothing and accessories, but more often than not someone younger than 20 years of age does the honors of wearing and modeling at a fashion show or shoot. While the reification of youth has not formed a direct, unwavering line of trajectory from the 1960s on (or from the 1920s, for that matter), the acknowledgement or celebration of the more mature woman in fashion is often a quick, fickle detour from the constant of the youthful ideal.
Something else that may seem unfamiliar to many readers today is that “teenage” was not always a recognized, defined stage of life in the growth of a person from childhood to adulthood. For young women in particular, any sort of transitional, autonomous period from childhood to married life was practically nonexistent. Beginning in the first few decades of the 20th century, psychologists and sociologists–as well as shrewd marketers and industry professionals recognizing the purchasing potential of a new audience of consumers–attempted to define and conceive of the period between adolescence and adulthood as distinct and significant.
In her book, Young Originals: Emily Wilkens and the Teen Sophisticate, Rebecca Jumper Matheson aims to chart the emergence of the teenager as an individual and cultural construct, as well as tell the story of one of the teenage girl’s biggest champions and early ready-to-wear entrepreneurs, designer Emily Wilkens. Wilkens emerged from her studies at Pratt Institute at the advent of World War II, when more opportunities were opening up for women in industry and leadership roles, eventual restrictions on fabric and design would stimulate creativity and innovation for those resourceful designers up for a challenge, the dominance of Paris-based fashion diminished during wartime, and the daily schedules of working mothers gave teenagers unprecedented freedom after school time for socializing, experiments in self-sufficiency and agency, and shopping. It is the confluence of these societal factors and Wilkens’s particular talent, drive, and collaborative skills that all contributed to her success.
Through contemporary accounts, reviews, and presentations of Wilkens’s designs in magazine and newspaper advertisements, fashion journalism, and fashion shows, and through extant garments, sketches, and interviews with Wilkens’s family, Matheson examines Wilkens’s creative output (which includes theater costume design, children’s wear, and what we would define today as “self-help” speaking and writing) and produces a well-rounded, nuanced portrait of the designer. Ultimately, this study demonstrates that Wilkens was in the right place at the right time to begin her career in creating and influencing young adult fashion.
Wilkens’s conception of teenage style and femininity was borne out of her personal adherence to contemporary mainstream standards of beauty, which consisted of good grooming, tidiness, sensible diet and exercise, and minimal makeup for a healthy, unfussy appearance (p. 47-48). These ideals were first translated into clothes by Wilkens in her designs for the New York stage production of Junior Miss in 1941, a play in which the dialogue and storyline directly addressed the shortcomings of the typical, limited wardrobe for young teenage girls. Wilkens’s tailored and neat designs contrast with costumes designed by Bonnie Cashin for the 1945 film version of Junior Miss (and also differ from Wilkens’s own “bobby soxer” costumes, seen early in the play), where the bobby soxer uniform of oversized sweater, skirt, bare legs and white bobby socks is privileged, perhaps as familiar shorthand for “teenager.” (p. 23). Wilkens reserved little patience throughout her lifetime for the “sloppy” appearance of the bobby soxer, or any other woman who willfully ignored cleanliness or a put-together appearance: “‘Maybe she really is too busy reading Jean Paul Sartre and dissecting frogs to bother with mundane little things like pushing back her cuticles–but I doubt it'” (p. 53)!
After her experience on Junior Miss, Wilkens began shopping around her idea for a line specifically directed at girls ages 12-16 (commonly referred to as “sub-deb”, or pre-debutante, rather than “teen” or “teenage”). This was initially a hard sell, but she eventually convinced manufacturers the Chalk Brothers to partner with her in this endeavor, under the label Emily Wilkens Young Originals. Through this partnership she had considerable control over both business and creative areas of the enterprise. Matheson discusses and reproduces several sketches for design patents submitted in the 1940s in Emily Wilkens’s name, not the name of the company or label, significantly.
Wilkens was one of the few American ready-to-wear designers who enjoyed name recognition through advertisements, copy in fashion magazines, and fashion design awards (some of her colleagues were Gilbert Adrian, Claire McCardell, and Lily Daché, with whom she was honored as one of the Ten Best Designers of 1946, known as the Golden Thimble award, given by Fashion Trades magazine in New York City). While not directly referenced in the media during Wilkens’s time, Matheson points out that as a child of Russian Jewish immigrants, widely broadcast coverage of Wilkens’s success could be seen as proof of the “American Dream” realized for a young woman, but also as representing a particularly American encouragement and tolerance in contrast to the oppression and genocide of Jews in Axis-controlled Europe (p. 91-92).
The direct marketing to teenage girls and the delineation of a stand-alone “teen department” at department stores such as Bonwit Teller and Neiman Marcus, and the publication of Seventeen magazine in 1944, helped create a welcoming climate for Wilkens’s teen designs. Matheson reproduces an interesting photograph from a 1945 Coty Awards fashion show, which included teenage models wearing Young Originals garments, all holding oversized accoutrements–phonograph records, hot dogs, sodas–that visualized the teen as a consumer with particular tastes and wants.
Wilkens’s success also stemmed from her alliances and collaborations with manufacturers and fabric suppliers, which became particularly advantageous during the fabric shortages of the 1940s. Young Originals’ use of sturdy, easy-to-care-for, and attractive fabrics benefitted Wilkens’s customers, especially during wartime when the resilience of garments was crucial. And most importantly, her focus on teenage “figure problems” and how to solve them won over teens and mothers alike (although it should be noted that Willkens’s body ideal was fairly exclusionary, and she encouraged young women who did not fit her ideal to slim down in order to wear her designs [p. 102]). It is interesting to note that Wilkens was not a gifted or trained seamstress–her degree was in fashion illustration–but she brought a construction-minded eye to how her clothing would fit the “in-between” teenage body, while connoting playfulness, innocence, and a nascent sophistication.
Smocking in areas of the bodice would accommodate and flatter growing and changing waistlines, while winged shoulders and dirndl skirts could give the illusion of a smaller waist or hourglass figure. Higher empire waistlines would lengthen the upper body. Wilkens walked the line between sophistication and innocence, offering appropriately styled garments in what was termed “young black”–describing a color that was generally considered by adults as too grown-up and alluring for the teenage girl.
Another key to her success was her attention to the correctness or appropriateness of an ensemble for its given situation (formal evening, slightly less formal “date” wear, or casual “play” wear), reinforced through descriptive advertisements and in Wilkens’s fashion and beauty advice addressed to her young audience, Here’s Looking at…You!, published in 1948. This emphasis on etiquette reassured anxious mothers, while at the same time promising an adult-like fashionability for her young clients (although it is interesting to entertain the idea that these young women may not have, in reality, followed all of the rules all of the time).
Wilkens was one of many mid-century designers who enthusiastically embraced direct analysis of historic garments in museum collections; she especially enjoyed the collection at the Museum of Costume Art (now the Costume Institute). Advertisements and publicity photos for Young Originals educated the consumer on Wilkens’s design inspiration, utilizing the now defunct practice of models wearing museum collection garments, juxtaposed with the contemporary Wilkens garment.
Matheson points out that this historicism was not only a rich and creative design strategy but also reassuring to adults, recalling a mythic “Golden Age America” that connoted innocence and goodness for the upscale, white consumer. Matheson’s astute overall analysis of Wilkens garments in the chapter on historicizing fashion demonstrates the complexity and ultimate unknowability of the design process, that it is impossible to point to one thing as the design inspiration (even in the designer’s own recollection or memory, generally speaking).
While Matheson raises the question of true agency for the teenager through consumerism and fashion choices (p. 79) or true self-expression through Wilkens’s firm but well-meaning dictates on correct fashion and beauty for the young woman (p. 78), Matheson clearly asserts that Wilkens’s designs, and overall marketing to teenagers, was more empowering than exploitative (p. 19). Even the hardest skeptic can’t help but be impressed with how Wilkens, through her particular designs and construction details, helped the teenage girl feel like more than a miniature version of her mother or a taller carbon copy of her little sister. And this study is ultimately about the examination of Wilkens and her personal, lifelong beliefs on beauty, femininity, and best presentation of self, which were informed by the ideals of the 1940s and 1950s, and the promise of a “new self” through products, advocated from the 1920s and 1930s onward. By the 1960s, earnest, deliberate overtures to the teenage market would be generally viewed with suspicion, or mocked–as in the scene in the Beatles’ A Hard Days Night (1964), when a television teen expert is roundly dismissed by George Harrison and the band.
“How to” or “makeover” books on the “correct” closet were certainly out of fashion in the 1970s (but have made a comeback in recent decades) with the arrival of both the minimally groomed, natural “hippie” look and deliberately stylized and decadent 1920s and 1930s vintage devotees. But it was not just changing beauty ideals that caused Wilkens to gradually change her focus. Matheson notes that marriage and children certainly slowed down her design activity, and her departure from Young Originals ultimately changed her role in defining fashion. Wilkens took a brief hiatus from designing in the late 1940s, but did return in the 1950s to design for Advance Patterns, Capezio, and the specialty junior store at Bonwit Teller (an unexpected turn, given that married women in upper and middle class homes were generally expected–or in some states, legislated–to stay out of the workforce [p. 109]).
Matheson remarks that Wilkens’s designs in the 1950s are generally less original than her work in the 1940s for Young Originals–perhaps also due to her decreased involvement in all aspects of design, manufacture, and promotion, unlike her experience with Young Originals. In the 1960s, Wilkens taught the “Workshop in External Impressions” at FIT, described by Matheson as “part makeover and part charm school” (p. 126); by 1971, the class was no longer offered in the course catalogs.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Wilkens switched to a more receptive adult audience interested in good health, eating, and well-scrubbed beauty, and reinvented herself as a spa guru, publishing Secrets From the Super Spas in 1976 and speaking at conferences and organizations across the country.
Matheson’s Young Originals is a well-researched, clearly written and presented study of the conception and courting of the teenager by the fashion industry and one talented woman’s success in designing ready-to-wear garments for a new clientele (admittedly white and upscale, with access to exclusive stores and shops). Studies that could complicate or follow in the footsteps of Young Originals would be an examination of how African American, Asian American, or Latino teenagers, for example, were visualized and wooed by 20th century designers and stores within different cities and community neighborhoods, and outside of the white media and fashion mainstream. Matheson notes that the word and concept “teenage” was most often applied to teenage girls (p. 28), but perhaps a specific study of mid-century teenage “menswear” could be possible.
Matheson’s Young Originals is well-worth the reader’s time, and especially instructive for anyone interested in the history of the ready-to-wear industry in America, wartime fashion, early 20th century American female entrepreneurs, department stores and fashion advertising, the mainstream fashion and beauty industry, and of course, the American teenager.