Charting the Fashions
ON a crisp autumn morning in the financial district in New York City an alert young girl of the unmistakable college type stood on a street corner and closely scrutinized the shoulders of every man who passed. Many men did pass, — many well-dressed ones, in fact, — the region being that of banking houses and brokerage firms where thousands of prosperous bond sellers and vice presidents gat her daily. From time to time could be heard the click of a little instrument in the young woman’s hand.
A leisurely elderly gentleman, attracted by the intent manner of the young woman, who was obviously on serious business for all she was conducting that business on a street corner, allowed curiosity to overcome strict convention.
‘Would you mind telling me what you are doing?’ he asked.
‘Not at all,’ she replied, clicking her counter twice as she spoke. ‘ I ’m checking peaked lapels.’
‘And what would that be?’ he persisted.
This might develop into a bore, she thought. Explaining the routine of one’s everyday business to people who have never heard of fashion scouting is tedious. Best to tell him briefly and get rid of his kindly but interfering interest.
‘I’m counting to see how many out of every hundred men who pass are wearing coats with peaked lapels. I work for the fashion bureau of a department-store group.’
The elderly gentleman pondered. Presumably it was all right. But the weather was a bit blowy — this youngster would get cold if she stood there very long.
Across the street a huge sight-seeing Chinatown bus stood empty, awaiting passengers. Seizing the girl firmly by the arm, the elderly gentleman escorted her to the bus, opened the door, thrust her into the front seat, and said contentedly: ‘There, now. You can check your peaked lapels just as well in there, where it’s warm and cosy.’ He departed with the satisfied mien of the Boy Scout who has performed his helpful deed for the day.
‘And,’ said the young woman, recounting the incident to her colleagues, ‘there I sat in glory, serving, I suppose, as a “come-on” for the bus owners while I finished my morning’s work.’
At the same hour a banker in one of the near-by celebrated institutions was calling this young woman’s chief on the telephone. ‘We have just financed the such-and-such mills to the tune of a good many million dollars,’ he stated, ‘and they report that, they have their looms set to run until midwinter on transparent velvet. Tell me, are they all right for style?’
‘They are not,’ the fashion analyst answered, ‘and I advise you to get those looms changed at once if possible. Transparent velvet was an important fashion twelve months ago. To-day it’s on the way out.’
The style scout seeking information from her post on the windy corner outside and the banker telephoning from the mahogany splendor of his office inside are factors, at either end of the scale, in a highly organized and important new profession which to-day influences all shopkeeping, and which, for want of a better term, can be referred to as Charting Fashions.
In the old days, before everyone had an automobile and a radio, and before publicity was perfected to the point where details of the costume of the Princess di San Faustino at the Lido on Monday are known to young women inhabiting our Western prairies by Wednesday, the matter of fashion was not of such relentless importance. Store buyers went to the New York market and bought what was shown them. Some bought by the eye, choosing the fabrics, colors, and designs which seemed to be favored by the greatest number of the manufacturing houses. Others, less careful but often successful enough, bought what was advised by the manufacturer whose entertainment was congenial, whose past advice had proved not unwise, or whose grasp of the subject seemed intelligent.
Manufacturers in turn went to Paris, made the round of the great couturiers, were fêted, influenced, persuaded in their turn, and emerged with what models fate had ordained for them. It is to be feared that occasionally the artistic and temperamental geniuses in charge of the French houses let their imaginations run riot, and presented to the ‘barbarians’ from America such unrestrained and peculiar creations as they never would have offered to the conservative élégantes of the Faubourg Saint-Germain.
If the New York manufacturer seeking designs in Paris and the American buyers gathered in New York from the four corners of the country were free from any organized guidance, the American woman customer was in her way equally guileless. She was inclined to buy without much question whatever was presented to her in her favorite shop. She was not too well informed about the intangible vaguely known as ‘style.’ It was a day before frequent trips to New York; a day when one or two of the higher-priced magazines did, to be sure, take dress very seriously, but when the women’s papers were casual about apparel and gave their crusading earnestness to campaigns for better babies and symposiums on diet or education.
In a word, it was ‘before the war.’
The first signs of the new department-store era, of which the organized charting of fashions is an important factor, appeared shortly after the Armistice. One of the Fifth Avenue houses was becoming active in the merchandising of fashion under the direction of an alert young advertising man who had graduated from the University of Illinois, won his spurs in Chicago, and come to the metropolis to demonstrate his idea that fashion promotion was to play an important rôle in the department store of the future. Another advertising man, also from the Middle West, was perfecting a fashion-reporting service designed to guide provincial stores throughout the country, and it became so successful that it was syndicated and sold like a newspaper cartoon service. Its customers were the merchandise managers of department stores.
Coincident with these and less outstanding examples was the work of such educational institutions as the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, and notably the Harvard School of Business Administration. As early as 1914 a Columbia professor of marketing, with the age-long history of merchandising at his finger tips, had left the academic shades and gone into a department store to compare historical theory with contemporary practice. The results were beneficial both to the classroom and to the store. Just after the war a discernible number of young men emerging from the Harvard School of Business Administration, young men of the type which had hitherto gone promptly from college into banking or bond selling or the law, began to turn their attention to the business of scientific shopkeeping. Here was a field with an enormous annual turnover where, apparently, scientific management had made few inroads. A number of these young men, allied through family connections to large banking houses and fortified by their business training in the newly formed Harvard school, decided to see what could be done.
They found the stores ripe for their efforts, especially those stores which had been reached by the influence of the pioneers from within. What the new school of young executives has accomplished in a decade has all but revolutionized the business of merchandising in the department stores, and has placed many a veteran merchant and buyer with his back to the wall. And one of the most captivating by-products of the new school is its organized charting of fashions, which has developed for young business women to-day a calling more novel, popular, and promising than any which has appeared since the period just before the war, when managing bookshops and tea rooms was enthusiastically hailed as the bright new avenue to economic freedom for women.
What the new type of scientific, trained store executive found, more often than not, was this: that storekeeping, like Topsy, had ‘just growedf Stores were stocked thoroughly twice a year; depleted lines were replenished as circumstances dictated, but generally at haphazard. There was no careful system of advance information to prepare a merchant for a developing new fashion or to warn him that an established one was on the wane.
Fashion was regarded as a whimsical jade. Sometimes one guessed right, sometimes wrong. Fashion was neither given as much credit as she deserved for her favors nor blamed severely enough for her mistakes. Weather, the state of the crops or of the stock market or of business generally, the condition of local industries, the peculiar and individual tastes of ‘our customers,’ as differentiated from all other customers and particularly from New York women — these and a score of other more or less relevant reasons were offered for the failure of a type of coats or dresses to sell readily.
The scientific young men from Harvard helped to change all this. Colored graphs began to spring up like magic in merchandise managers’ offices, where only sample dresses had been seen before. Studying these and the tables of figures which accompanied them, the buyer could calculate with mathematical precision which would be his peak Saturday or bluest Monday of the season, how many more black coats he should buy than brown, what proportion of his budget should go for high-, for medium-, or for low-priced garments, and how much stock he should have left by Christmas. Scientific principles already discovered and proved practicable in other fields were, it was found, equally cogent when applied to the selling of apparel. The problems of buying and selling were amenable to the lessons of cost accounting, overhead budgeting, and merchandise control. Among the many elements of storckeeping which were examined under the microscope of the new-school merchants, not the least was this matter of the old bugbear Style.
Here it was that the fashion analyst stepped in.
The first principle that the fashion analyst expounds is that there is nothing sudden, or erratic, or mysterious about fashion. It moves slowly and in cycles — not quickly or with leaps and bounds, first in this direction, then in that, as many suppose. It can be studied, charted, predicted with an accuracy that to-day is saving manufacturers and merchants thousands of the dollars formerly wasted, when knives were set to cut a style that had no legitimate promise of general acceptance, and when departmentstore shelves were expensively loaded with clothes which, as the modern analyst of fashions could tell at a glance, would prove to be decidedly ephemeral in attractiveness.
The fashion analyst who started in a small way, advising the buyer what to choose to satisfy the demands of a clientele becoming increasingly styleconscious, now occupies the strategic position of coördinator between the many departments of a big store, as well as between buyer and manufacturer. The chain begins, as it has for many years, in the brains of the great dress designers of Paris, who have the advantages and prestige of European culture and the treasures of the world’s great storehouses of art to draw upon. The fruits of their labors are presented to a few score of international beauties, cosmopolites, society women, muchadmired actresses, and the like, who make a life work, an intense and exciting one, of appearing, beautifully clad, at the pleasure resorts of the Continent.
These women start the fashion. What they reject is banished. It disappears. What they accept they wear at Biarritz, Deauville, on the Riviera, at the races in Paris, at the Swiss winter resorts. Soon it is seen on the fashionable ocean liners, on Park Avenue; a little later, in great numbers, on Fifth Avenue; and then, a very little later, on nearly every Main Street in the land.
The amount of time which elapses between the first appearance of a new style at some luxurious plage and its acceptance by enough women throughout the world to make possible mass production is longer than people generally imagine. It is always long enough for the middlemen to discover the tendency, manufacture their goods accordingly, and then sell them at retail. The style trends discovered in Europe and carefully watched in their slightest manifestation are sometimes two years in becoming the accepted fashion in America.
It is the painstaking accuracy of the charting of fashions which makes it so valuable. When fashion scouts attend the races at Belmont or Meadowbrook they do not note in a general way that tweed is being worn, or that fur scarfs seem to be in favor. They count how many tweed suits there are, recording what colors and by whom worn. When they go to tea at the Plaza or lunch at Pierre’s in New York they count the number of women present and the proportion wearing gray-beige hose to those wearing sun-bronze, should that be the question of the moment. When sun-bronze is coming in, a socalled ‘high fashion,’ there will be a few at the Plaza, none on Forty-Second Street or on Broadway. If sun-bronze has been reported earlier from Longchamp and Auteuil, the alert fashion analyst, when she sees a few pairs in the smart Fifty-Seventh Street section, bestirs herself; when the majority of women are demanding sun-bronze, Forty-Second Street and the stores on the Main Streets of the United States will have what is wanted.
A few years ago the word ‘ensemble’ came into the fashion language of the American woman. It meant to her a suit — that is, a dress and a coat that matched, or were closely related in fabric and color. This harmony or coördination fitted in with the ideal of more careful dressing, and to-day the word ‘ensemble’ is thought and spoken by every woman and by many men selecting clothes. It has come to mean the proper selection of colors, fabrics, and accessories for harmonious effect in costume and home decoration.
In order that a customer may go into a store and come forth with a complete ensemble, or with accessories perfectly assembled, careful and intensive work on the part of the fashion analyst in anticipation of the season’s wants is required. Shoes are planned with the manufacturer, and ordered six to ten weeks in advance of their actual selling in the store. When, as has been the case in the past year, shoes and bags are worn in the same color, and frequently in the same leather, it necessitates a coördination of buying activities, dependent on the decision of the fashion analyst and the buyers, regarding leathers and colors which smart women will wear. Very dark tobaccobrown was almost universally accepted the past season, replacing tans and browns of a reddish hue. Fashion coordinators scurried around with the shoe buyers, made sure that the right color was being selected, got samples of the leathers that were being pulled over the lasts, and hurried back to the bag buyer, with the advice that his bags should be of the same leather.
Less than two years ago a bag manufacturer of considerable importance indignantly said: ‘I don’t have to go to shoe manufacturers to find out what is going to be good in bags. I know. I’ll make my own colors, and they can do as they please.’ The following season many of his former customers did not return, and their reason was that his colors did n’t match the shoes they had bought.
It is no easy task to match felts and straws to suits and dresses, but in the past few seasons retail-store buyers have seen to their dismay reliable customers come in with a dress and say, ‘I must match this color,’ and, failing, walk out. Thus manufacturers are concentrating their efforts toward coördinating the various industries. They know that buyers from wellorganized stores will arrive in the market with samples of the blues and browns, greens and reds, that are the accepted shades for fashion promotion, and that they, like the retail customer, will walk out if they can’t find what they want.
Last summer a modish type of straw hat was being worn by well-dressed women at Southampton, and a buyer, arriving in the market with this information, planned to purchase a couple of dozen so that she might be among the first to register the newly important straw. After visiting two manufacturers, she said to the third, ‘I’m going to find those hats or buy nothing.’ He admonished her not to buy any of the new stuff; he had been selling hundreds of this and that type to well-known stores. This only sent her on her way determined that she wanted nothing but the right new straw. Eventually she found it.
A keen, well-informed fashion research director collects the important colors and the important fabrics for a coming season eight to twelve weeks in advance, and supplies to all the buyers with whom she works a complete set of swatches which they will use in the market as their guide in all color selection. Only in this way can a store’s coat department know accurately the shade which the customer quotes from the hat department, and so supply a matching or correctly harmonizing shade. When this color plan is carefully worked out, matching gloves and hose, sweaters and skirts, evening wraps and dance frocks, will be found in the same store. Uniform color information is possible for the sales people under this system. For instance, Chanel red, not Coolidge red, will be the shade mentioned; Patou blue, not Alice blue.
The fashion analyst must be unfailingly alert, of course, and must possess an unerring eye for style. She must be a tireless worker with physical stamina as well as mental quickness. She has literally to ‘pound the pavements and wear out shoe leather’ in the gathering of fashion news, which is the foundation of her resources for style appraisal. Decorative young women fond of fine clothes and entertainments in fashionable restaurants, or restless debutantes suddenly deciding to ‘do something,’ are the bane of the fashion bureaus. The intelligent merchant is fast learning that the successful fashion worker who will help him make money must serve her apprenticeship in the department store before she can appreciate the problems of buyers and sales people. The socially prominent young thing who knows Cap d’Antibes and Aiken, but recoils at the mention of unbleached sheeting and flannelette nightshirts, is a liability. Middle-aged matrons of culture and refinement are often sadly disillusioned when they think this background and their acknowledged personal gentility a sufficient equipment for the work. The
charting of fashions is a serious business demanding serious effort, and lighthearted ladies in search of a sinecure are not welcome in its strongholds.
When the dancing partner of the late celebrated Maurice Mouvet first tripped down a French Line gangplank wearing a white gardenia some six years ago, the average woman, if she had noticed at all, might have sniffed at artificial flowers, as they were scornfully called. The fashion coordinator, who must eschew strong likes and dislikes and cultivate a dispassionate critical insight, noticed and noted. She saw two or three more gardenias a few days later at one of the patrician restaurants. Styles in accessories, unlike major styles in coats and dresses, develop fairly quickly, so it was a scant fortnight later when ‘costume’ flowers were insinuatingly presented to a delighted feminine world. Countless department stores which had sadly relinquished artificial flowers from their millinery sections when untrimmed hats became the vogue began to sell, not artificial, but ‘costume’ flowers. In this case the rose, by another name, smelled far sweeter.
Jacques Borotra, the ‘bounding Basque’ of the sports writers, prancing joyously over the tennis courts in full view of thousands of admiring débutantes and wearing the skullcap his compatriots had worn for years, is credited with starting a fashion in headgear that has swept the world — first in little caps for children, and later, when the fine artistic hand of the Parisian modiste had worked its modifying charm, in a classic fashion for women’s hats. In the same way a famous English actress now starring on Broadway is believed to have initiated the vogue for imitation, or costume, jewelry which has swept the country in the past few years.
The vagaries of uncommonly popular individuals are not, of course, the only breeding ground for styles which may become the fashion. An upheaval like the World War will be responsible for short skirts, cropped hair, and other evidences of utilitarian simplicity. The enthusiasm of a few millions of young people for tennis will make the middy blouse and pleated skirt of Helen Wills a favorite among schoolgirls, or the striking sweaters of Bill Tilden the desideratum of their collegiate brothers. The sun-basking of the Italians at the Lido so impressed itself on the consciousness of American tourists in Venice that pyjamas have escaped from the boudoir and come into the garden all over the United States. Health seekers baring their backs to the rays of the Mediterranean sun all along the French and Italian Riviera started a vogue for backless and sleeveless dresses which dismayed silk manufacturers and modest prelates alike.
And the old dependable yearning for change, the most certain of all the certainties to the student of fashion, is now bringing back feminine frills and fripperies to a world of women starved with the Biblical lean seven years of stern masculine simplicity.
The style consciousness of the individual woman every fashion analyst attributes largely to the effect of visual publicity. Persistent articles in fashion magazines, faithfully read, will have infinitely less effect in focusing mass attention on some new style than the sight of a famous or strikingly attractive woman wearing that style. This visual publicity is possible to-day because of the moving pictures and because the world and his wife get around more, thanks to their automobiles. Nowhere so unanswerably as in fashion is seeing believing.
The Prince of Wales, fashion scouts will assure you, is closely watched not alone because he is royalty, but because he is one of the world’s best-dressed young men.
Not the least important factor in the publicity, deliberate or gratuitous as the case may be, which has made American women so well informed about style is their comparatively new familiarity with the names of the great couturiers of Paris. Ten years ago Lanvin and Premet and Callot Sœurs were just unpronounceable names with no personal significance to any but the knowing few. To-day the rotogravure sections, the fashion magazines (tencent as well as forty-cent ones), the moving-picture news flashes, the style talks via radio, the department stores’ mannequin parades, have so impressed la haute couture on the consciousness of women that not only the woman of leisure and means, but every little shop girl, is aware that a dashing British army captain remained in Paris after the war and established the house of Molyneux; that the life of the lovely Gabrielle Chanel is full of romance; that the brisk and businesslike Patou and Lelong come to the States and meet Americans on their own terms; that the bearded Paul Poiret is the apostle of the exotic and bizarre; that the aristocratic house of Worth (some of them even say ‘Vort’) dresses the Queens of Spain and Rumania; and that the name Schiaparelli stands for sports clothes incomparable.
After-the-war Paris attracted a large group of diverse cosmopolitan exiles. Titled Russians stripped of their estates opened embroidery or perfume shops if they were grand duchesses, or drove taxicabs at night if they were grand dukes. Americans or English war workers, enamored of all things French, remained. Italians and Spaniards forgathered for one reason or another.
Their stories received constant attention, and many of them drifted to what the buyers, among themselves, caustically refer to as the ‘rag business.’ The Paris fashion world became celebrated for many things in addition to just fashions; and the publicity of personality helped tremendously to further the education in fashions of a world full of interested women.
The old-fashioned or provincial storekeeper who flouts the dictates of his style information services is destined to chagrin. The story is told of a Western merchant who was chided by a New York fashion contact editor for filling his shop windows with Spanish shawls a year after this vogue had waned. ‘Our people will buy them,’ said the merchant. ‘We are different here.’ Just then a maiden in her teens, accompanied by a youth of equally tender years, strolled by the window where the garments were displayed. ‘Oh, I must have one of those!’ exclaimed the girl admiringly. The merchant smiled ‘I told you so’ at his disdainful critic. But the youth was replying, ‘Indeed you’ll not go places with me, wearing one of those things. They went out of style a year ago.’ And the fashion editor’s answering smile was freighted with a double dose of irony.
Equally significant of the worldwide penetration of style consciousness in a field apart from apparel is the experience of a fashion analyst seeking to persuade her client, an Iowa merchant, to install the new colored-enamel kitchen ware in place of the old-fashioned agate and tin. Her pleas were falling on deaf ears when a fat Sioux squaw entered the house-wares section and asked for a luncheon pail for one of her little Indians to carry to school. She grunted scornfully when the nice shiny tin pails which had always been sold were offered. She wanted either a red or a yellow enamel pail. ‘New style,’ she quoted.
That particular Iowa merchant saw light through Indian eyes that day.
The buyer of women’s apparel to-day goes into the market with his merchandise control sheet in one hand, telling him how many garments to buy and how much to pay for each, and in the other his chart of colors, styles, and proportion of each, provided by the fashion director. When the manufacturer, too, has been advised by and has cooperated with his own analyst, he offers what the buyer knows women will take. The result is a gratifying increase of profit and decrease of loss all along the line. Stories of expensive left-overs unsalable because the style was wrong are becoming scarcer. Manufacturers saved from investing in thousands of yards of unneeded material because they had accurate information of skirt and coat lengths fill the air with their grateful praise. The hit-or-miss storekeeper of the old type who prospered in spite of his disorderly and illogical methods, the wealthy second-generation merchant spending for polo ponies or airplanes the fortune his father built up in the nineties, are fast surrendering to the facts-and-figures school of bright young men and women, many of the highest-salaried executives among them still in their early thirties, who are raising merchandising to the dignity of a profession and proving that the scientific spirit is the Waterloo of waste, whether it be in manufacturing automobiles, hats, or shoes.
It must not be thought, however, that the charting of fashions confines itself exclusively to the garments of women. Far from it. The matron who has achieved what she considers a flattering ensemble for herself, who presents to the world the pictorial effect she believes bears the stamp of her personality, is not long in turning her attention to husband and children. They too must be in the picture.
College boys, eschewing the to them slightly ridiculous tail coat, used to come to dinner in the shorter Tuxedo, and their elders and betters, dazzled by the glamour of youth, fell into line. For some years conservative hostesses, with an appreciative eye to the formalities, deplored the fact that you couldn’t get a man under ninety into anything but a dinner coat. Then the college boys, seeking change, discovered the delights of dressing up in tail coat and ‘topper’ even as their sisters, shortskirted and bob-haired since childhood, derived a costume-party thrill from the first drooping long skirts. Last winter we saw the dignified man of middle age once more enduring the portly grace of formal attire. The Wall Street scout, busy on her count of peaked lapels, indicates how close is the attention paid to men’s clothes.
As for the children, they have always, of course, reflected their fond mothers’ tastes, but with the growing sophistication of extreme youth they are becoming, as the phrase goes, styleconscious themselves. Indeed, an indignant New York nurse, whose precocious charge demands that her costume for the next day be presented for her approval each night before she retires, tells of arranging a rose-striped sweater with a plain rose skirt and rose-striped socks for the little girl’s inspection.
That won’t do, Marie,’ she was informed.
’And why not, pray, miss?’
They don’t match,’ said the sixyear-old. ‘The stripes in the sweater go this way [vertically] and the ones in the socks like this [horizontally].’
The delighted fashion student to whom this was told admitted that the child, like Shylock, bade fair to ‘ better the instruction.’
From the clothing of husband and children to the furnishings of houses and the accoutrements of automobiles is but a step for the fashion-conscious American woman. Even so practical a realist as Henry Ford had to scrap the mechanically perfect model T car when America wanted beauty and style. Furniture manufacturers and house designers, architects of office buildings, anyone who makes to sell for profit anything that the modern woman uses or wears, looks to fashion research divisions for guidance. And the fashion analyst, far from trying or wishing to advance this style or that, looks for the answer to the women themselves and to recorded charts of what their most conspicuous representatives have worn and used for the past two years. The purpose of the fashion director is not to show the store how to sell what the manufacturer has made, but rather to show the store how to buy what the public will demand.
And the public wall demand, all history goes to show, what it has demanded, but with modifications, alterations, and new embellishments. If women wear ultra-feminine things as they did in 1921, they will go through seasons of simplified semi-masculine modes before they again demand and accept the ruffles and laces as they began to do in 1929.
There’s nothing new under the sun and never was, but the designer lives and flourishes by knowing when the old is old enough to be new again, and what manner of ingratiating detail it may attempt by way of disguise. And the fashion analyst, watching these attempts and their failure or success, is the merchant’s barometer, foretelling with a gratifying percentage of accuracy the sunshiny styles which will become the fashion and the stormy ones to be avoided this side of signing orders on the dotted line.