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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Designer for the Younger Crowd

Have you heard of Emily Wilkens? I was fascinated by this fashion pioneer once I started researching her collections. She carved out a niche by designing sportswear and dresses for young women while most of her contemporaries were designing for the adult woman.

Emily Wilkens (1917-2000) was an award-winning fashion designer who rejected the idea that young girls should be dressed as if they were their mothers in miniature. Ms. Wilkens designed clothes for preteen and teenage girls without the formality and fussiness apparel makers had tended to impose upon them. She was a contemporary along with Claire McCardell, Joset Walker and Tom Brigance to name a few.

Born in Hartford in 1917, Ms. Wilkens studied fashion illustration at Pratt Institute. After graduating in 1938, she began sketching dresses for department store newspaper advertisements. She came to the world of children's wear rather by accident. While vacationing in Hollywood in the early 1940's, Ms. Wilkens, then an illustrator, was erroneously introduced at a party as a children's fashion designer. Soon after, she was asked to design a wardrobe for Ann Todd, a child star, who needed to be outfitted for a new movie. As a result, Ms. Wilkens began designing clothes for the progeny of celebrities like Jack Benny and Gracie Allen.

Wilkens employed the principles of sportswear, testing every garment for practicality, emphasizing cottons and other easy-care fabrics and allowed a sweet young femininity to show in her garments. Her main ambition was to prove to the fashion world that wardrobes must be planned for young girls with the same care and perfection as garments for matrons. Designer sportswear for younger girls was perfected by Emily Wilkens and she built in specific features for their benefit. Adjustable waistbands allowed for various sizes and weights, subtle swelling at the bust was a kind of perfect mean for the All-American girl, to accommodate a growing bust. Wilkens was also known for showing black dresses with bright accessories, allowing girls to wear "grown-up" black without the austerity of mature dresses. She observed young women at leisure and offered them play clothes similar to those being invented at the same time by other designers for their elders. Many of her dresses could have served as costumes for the musical "Oklahoma" popular in the 1940's. Everyone loved her charming cultivated dresses for young women.

In 1944, Emily Wilkens was given the prestigious Coty Fashion Award for American designers. She was described in the program notes as a young American designer of taste and originality, who recognized an age group which deserved style consideration - and gave it to them. This age group was the teen-age girl described by Emily Wilkens long before the 1950's invented the rock-and-roll teenager.

Emily also wrote a few books for her audience. By 1948, she had started a dual career as a writer with the book ''Here's Looking at You: The Modern Slant on Smartness for the Junior Miss.'' She wrote four more books on beauty and grooming and served as a trustee of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York from 1966 to 1976.

Here are a few examples of Emily's dresses and sportswear for young girls.

The photographs below were taken in 1946 by Herbert Gehr.


Couture Allure Vintage Fashion said...

I love learning about designers I've never heard of. I'll be on the lookout for you!

elena-lu said...

wonderful info and wow what lovley photos!

A said...

Wonderful photos. It is nice to see focus on teenage fashion.

Darla: Retro Ways said...

I had never heard of her, I am so glad I know now. Amazing post and history lesson!

The first photo and third photo are the most gorgeous outfits I have seen in along time.

Lovely blog!