Tag Archives: designer fashion

Martha Sleeper – Silent Film Actress to Fashion Designer

Maybe I said this before when I was researching a Nelly Don dress, one of the most enjoyable parts of selling vintage clothing – for me – is research and learning.  It seems selfish not to pass along information when I find it. Including a lot of historical detail  in a description can be overwhelming for some, so I’m passing some knowledge along here!

I purchased several pieces of clothing from the estate of a woman whose family owned a high end clothing boutique from about the 1940s through the 1960s or 70s.  Almost every item was either tailor made, designer (remember the Mingolini Guggenheim?), or at least had an interesting clothing label.

Now that we’re well into summer, I’m desperately trying to pull a few more summer dresses out to get into my shop.  This dress caught my eye because the turquoise and white cotton print looks so cooling.  One look at the label, “Martha Sleeper Creates For You  100% Cotton San Juan, Puerto Rico” and I knew I had some research to do!

Martha Sleeper Label

Martha Sleeper Label

It turns out that Martha Sleeper started her career in silent films and then moved on to Broadway in the 1940s.  Then, in 1949 she took a vacation to the Virgin Islands and ended up in Puerto Rico where she loved it so much, she stayed.  While looking for a way to support herself in her new life, she began designing jewelry – a hobby she enjoyed prior to WWII.  Finding that “too tedious”, she started designing clothing and in 1950, opened a shop. She designed the silk screen prints for her fabric and 80% of this printed fabric was processed in Puerto Rico.  By 1955, her island inspired clothing was being exported to other islands and to the US.

Martha Sleeper Vintage Summer Dress

Martha Sleeper Vintage Summer Dress

In 1964, Ms. Sleeper opened a shop in Palm Beach, Florida at the urging of her friends and divided her time between Palm Beach and Puerto Rico.

Martha Sleeper died on March 25, 1983 of a heart attack at age 72 in Beaufort, South Carolina where she lived with her third husband.

So now that I’ve found out just who Martha Sleeper was … can I really sell the dress?  Well it depends.  Does it fit me?!

Mingolini & Gugenheim – Italian Designers

Mingolini Gugenheim Italian Designer Dress Vintage 50s 60s

Mingolini Gugenheim Italian Designer Dress Vintage 50s 60s

From the first moment I laid eyes on it, it was obvious that this dress was special.  The label read “Mingolini Gugenheim Piazza del Spagna, 9-91- Roma”.  Honestly, I had never heard of Mingolini & Gugenheim before I found this dress

What little information I found while researching indicates that Carlo Gugenheim and his partner, Sergio Mingolini were designing clothing at least since the 1930s and into the 1990s.  Micol Fontana mentions a Mingolini Guggenheim jacket from the 30s in her archives that was once owned by Edda Ciano – Mussolini’s daughter – in an interview with Eugenia Paulicelli, the author of “Fashion Under Facism”.  She calls Mingolini Guggenheim “one of the best known fashion houses in Rome”.

In a Reuters article from January of 1960, Italian fashion designers DeLuca and Mingolini-Gugenheim are said to be designing with an eye toward the American market by creating fashions with a “long, slim line for a long, slim woman”.  Smooth fabrics are meant to emphasize “slimness, softness, and smoothness.”

An Associated Press article from January 1962 describes the coming spring fashions from Italian designers Mingolini-Gugenheim as being focused on capes and influenced by the Egyptian look due to the new Elizabeth Taylor movie, “Cleopatra”.   The new designs by Mingolini-Gugenheim were notably the cocoon-like capes, evening gowns with godet skirts, and suits with short or bolero jackets and narrow skirts.  They were described as having “lots of appeal for individual private clients but much too lush to be a pacesetter for mass produced fashions”.

Undeniably, one of the most outstanding tidbits of information I was able to find was in the Caribou Observer of March 10, 1955 (p.14).  Included on the social page was a photo of a drop-dead gorgeous evening gown (would have loved to have seen it in color!) on a .. shall we say “special” mannequin.  The caption calls it “weird” and “surreal” – the body of a woman with the head of an animal.

Mingolini & Gugenheim are now on my personal radar.  As I locate more information about these designers and their fashions, I’ll be posting more here.  And if you have any information to add, let me know!

“Chic Chicago” Exhibit at the Chicago History Museum

Why has my blog been so silent the past couple of weeks?  Other than being busy beyond belief, we took our annual mini-vacation to Chicago.  It’s a treat for us all and a “thank you” to my son and his girlfriend for helping at the vintage clothing shows throughout the year.  We started the tradition about 3 years ago and had so much fun we can’t stop ourselves now!

The museums in Chicago are superb and there are always new, rotating exhibits to see.  Pierceton is close enough to Chicago that we have some Chicago stations on our cable system so we always pick up new ideas of places to go and things to do.  As if there could ever be any boredom there!  Yes, we love to visit the Windy City.

If you hang out with me very long, you’ll find I’m torn between food and fashion.  (Here’s where I have to maintain a little dignity and mention that I CAN still wear vintage clothing, but a girl’s gotta have some fun!)  We discovered Tuscany on Taylor Street in Little Italy.  You know you’re in for a treat when the basket of fresh Italian bread is delivered to the table with a huge roasted garlic bulb that the waiter mashes on a plate and mixes with olive oil.  Oh my.  And accommodating!  My son prefers white sauces and asked if a particular dish could be served with white sauce and before he knew it, the entire dish had been personalized for him.  Our waiter was a complete doll.  We are going back soon, even if we have to make a special trip.

But I digress …

Other than finding a couple new POPs (Pig Out Places) one of my favorite exhibits was at the Chicago HistoryMuseum.   Here’s where I beg everyone’s pardon for the lack of graphics since, understandably, no photos are allowed of the museum collection.  BUT the Museum of Science & Industry has an  Old Town area where fotofanatics can run amok and I got a nice picture of some shoes!

The exhibition “Chic Chicago” displays an exquisite selection of beautiful designer dresses that include antique Worth gowns from as early as 1861, early Chanel – a personal favorite,  Madame Grès, Poiret, Christian Dior’s early New Look, Halston, Givenchy, Vionnet, Versace, Mugler …. plus so many more.   And ohhhh … I was particularly taken with a 1938 evening gown by Gilbert Adrian influenced by Cubism and intrigued by the 1954 “Butterfly” ballgown by Charles James.  The “Butterfly” gown exhibit included a smaller, touchable version that I really appreciated because the wings and bustle are truly a feat of engineering.

Then there was the Fortuny Delphos gowns.   Sigh ……

They had to call the janitorial staff to follow me around to mop up the drool.  Those museum people are so fussy.

Imagine the thrill discovering that there was yet another special exhibition there at the same time, “Bertha Honoré Palmer” that included more breathtaking gowns worn by Mrs. Palmer, wife of Potter Palmer who built The Palmer House hotel.  This exhibition featured antique gowns and personal items owned by Mrs. Palmer that dated from the 1880s to the early 1900s.  Particularly enjoyable to see were more unusual items such as a winter coat, circa 1885, a court presentation gown from 1892 with a 9 foot train, a 1908 teagown, and circa 1910 red velvet shoes.  Remarkable fabrics … fabrics which are so sadly unavailable today.

Yeah, the janitors mopped up there, too.

So if you’re anywhere NEAR Chicago, be sure to take the opportunity to check these two exhibitions out at the Chicago History Museum.  “Chic Chicago” is only open until July 26, 2009 so HURRY!  The Bertha Honoré Palmer exhibition will run until January 4, 2010.

Both exhibition catalogs are available at the Chicago History Museum.  Janitorial services extra.

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