Shopping Queens, Chic and Friendly

By Daniela Sheinin

Much has been written on the American “New Woman,” what the historian Einav Rabinovitch-Fox calls “both an image and an appellation referring to a generation of women who came of age between 1890 and 1920 and challenged, through their attitudes and appearances, Victorian values and gender norms.”[1] Her identity varied by race, class, ethnicity, and age. The New Woman breached gender norms, pressed for a public voice, and has been tied by some to feminism, the campaign for women’s suffrage, consumer culture, and female sexuality. New and sometimes radical fashion trends marked an expression of New Woman feminism and a break from a gendered, culturally confining past. These included versions of the Japanese kimono and the “ ‘Village smock,’ a bohemian version of the kimono and the dress item most associated with Greenwich Village feminists.”[2] Moreover, there’s evidence that manufacturers produced low-price knockoffs of the kimono and other New Woman fashion trends, eagerly consumed by some working class women.

Austin Street postcard, 1940s.

Austin Street postcard, 1940s.

Far from Greenwich Village, in the quickly growing suburban neighborhoods of Queens, a different kind of new woman and new consumer was emerging, as shown in the rapid growth and success of neighborhood clothing and department stores. Changing consumer clothing and fashion cultures in Queens (and their export at times to Brooklyn and Manhattan) are reflected to some extent in the (Manhattan) New Woman. But they’re closer to what Sylvie Murray saw a generation later in Queens women as a less ideologically and politically charged, participatory democratic impulse. While the Greenwich Village New Woman was breaking down nineteenth-century rigidities in her clothing choices, the new suburban Queens woman (ethnically diverse, but largely white) sought agency in more conservative clothing choices that broke class and other identity bonds by combining a celebration of suburban neighborhood life with the acquisitive power to buy replicas of the latest Manhattan fashions.[3]

In November 1924, Mr. and Mrs. Louis D. Berger opened a “small neighborhood shop” in Astoria, Queens. Famous Fashion Shops was “as friendly as a home;” an afternoon shopping trip was pitched to potential customers as equivalent to la visit with the neighbors. Twenty-five years later, the Bergers’ commercial focus on a community experience in shopping was still going strong. They were so successful that they had opened four additional shops in Queens, five in Manhattan, and one in Brooklyn.[4] The Bergers had figured out an unusual formula. To invert the appeal of Manhattan to modern New York shoppers, they offered a combination of what they believed shoppers couldn’t find across the East River (until they themselves opened branches of Famous Fashion Shops there). The Bergers provided a neighborhood, local feel; a family, friendly touch; and Fifth Avenue fashions at sensible Queens prices. The formula worked!

Famous Fashion Shops Storefront from “Famous Fashion Shops: The American Dream Come True,” Queens Post, June 1, 1950.

Famous Fashion Shops Storefront from “Famous Fashion Shops: The American Dream Come True,” Queens Post, June 1, 1950.

The Bergers cultivated a distinctly local identity for their store. Over the bridge from fast-paced Manhattan, Famous Fashion Shops’ off-the-rack wares merged with the development of local identities for Queens neighborhoods. When women came to Famous Fashion Shops, they weren’t simply shopping Queens, but shopping their rapidly growing neighborhoods of Astoria, Forest Hills, and Rego Park. Consumers expected and found quality — with a personal touch. Having often worked previously as salespeople in the clothing industry, buyers knew what the women of Long Island wanted. The clear path for company employees to work their way up the ranks underlined two core values — enthusiastic participation in the store’s constructed family dynamic (including training through nurturing) and that all employees be “imbued with the Famous Fashion principle of friendliness and service.” A familiarity with shoppers, and with the local community, gave employees a unique knowledge of local needs and tastes, and the ability to serve the neighborhood in ways other shops could not. Buyers for Famous Fashion Shops knew that in Queens, shoppers wanted something different than what Manhattan stores sold. They were in search of new styles and trends that might be displayed on Fifth Avenue, but wanted high quality knockoffs that could be quickly reproduced and were manufactured specifically for “exclusive Famous Fashion sales at down-to-earth prices.”[5]

Outside the center of the US fashion industry in Manhattan, Famous Fashion Shops offered the familiar. A 1951 illustration from the local newspaper, The Queens Post, showed a woman holding her husband’s hat: With a “little loving care I can make it look like new.” And when a garment was finally beyond loving repair, Famous Fashion Shops provided a shopping experience for the hard-working Queens family, aspiring to the latest styles and quality — but frugal about cost.[6]

Fashions From Paris to Forest Hills. “Some Enchanted Evening, You’ll Love to Wear a Formal…”Queens Post, March 23, 1950.

Fashions From Paris to Forest Hills. “Some Enchanted Evening, You’ll Love to Wear a Formal…”Queens Post, March 23, 1950.

Famous Fashion Shops was on the cusp of mid-century American fashion trends, not in the styles themselves, but in the newly emerging business of inexpensive reproductions of luxury designs made affordable for the average woman. Fashion industry leaders found growing American interest in European styles. Designers in the 1940s began to copy French garments for sale in American department stores, a primarily New York City phenomenon.[7] Fashion leaders also grasped that the women of Long Island wanted style, but at a lower price point. Toward that end, they understood that Fifth Avenue was distinct from Rego Park, or Forest Hills. Local Queens shops capitalized on the growing interest and awareness, largely among women, of international design. Leslie’s at Austin Street and Continental Avenue in Forest Hills advertised itself as a place where women could find the “latest creations from leading stylists of New York and Paris.”[8] On that same wavelength, Famous Fashion Shops boasted improbably, but plausibly to Queens consumers, that store outlets had “become known throughout the world.” The company boasted to a public eager to be all at once worldly and suburban Queens neighbors, that orders were coming in from Rome, Shanghai, and other exoticized locales.

On the geographical edge of Manhattan, though perhaps more distant socially and culturally, Queens women inspired by city life yet happy to keep their distance craved the luxury their new suburban homes and neighborhoods might not provide. Anxieties over their having moved to the suburbs appeared in the pages of the Kew Hills News and other local publications. In 1955, a new Manhattan transplant to Queens wrote in the widely read newspaper of the misfortune of suddenly finding herself far from what had once been a short walk to the best museums, and the thrill of cosmopolitan life. In a refrain familiar to many 1940s and 1950s Manhattan expats in Queens, she had simply no longer been able to afford her Manhattan lifestyle.[9] Famous Fashion Shops tapped into this longing for the convergence of a flashy, modern lifestyle, a calmer local suburban community, and low prices — “a reputation for giving the best values on Long Island.”[10]

Women’s Suit, “For Ease and Beauty” Fashions for Spring: 1950 Modes Designed For Ease and Beauty,” Queens Post, March 16, 1950.

Women’s Suit, “For Ease and Beauty” Fashions for Spring: 1950 Modes Designed For Ease and Beauty,” Queens Post, March 16, 1950.

Value meant functional and inexpensive mass production in dress (as in home building in Queens), often embedded in marketing campaigns that stressed luxury or its appearance. As an extension of the mass-produced suburbs, and the rapidly expanding transit and roadway systems, fashion in Queens provided for women and men on the move — always underlining the link between the smart consumer and value. Jayson’s, a clothing store in Forest Hills, offered products “For The Woman Who Knows Values.” Meanwhile, Bur-mil’s Cameo stockings were flogged locally as costing “less than you’d expect to pay for such quality.”[11] Advertisements for stores and products in the Queens Post suggested that Queens women had a unique ability to seek out and find the best discounts without sacrificing quality.

Another point of appeal to Queens women was technology in the service of better, streamlined suburban living. Advertisements for women’s undergarments appeared regularly, highlighting new technologies or styles that might ease a woman’s day-to-day life. Bras were big as women launched themselves into the workforce. The “self-adjusting” Deep-‘N Secret bra by Lilyette was “designed to give you graceful poise,” and “absolute comfort.” It was “beautifully made of lustrous rayon satin and daintily scalloped embroidery.” The Reflexion Bra, also by Lilyett, was flexible in responding to the body’s every move. It would “Bend! Stretch! Twist!” as women went about their busy day.[12] Kayser’s ad for the nylon flare leg pantie and half slip promoted the “perfect fit,” as opposed to its droopy predecessors unfit for rigorous daily activity. Fit-All-Tops stockings were also marketed as a new technological marvel that now held out the promise of a garment that would remain in place. Meanwhile, the Fit-All-Heel was “guaranteed not to twist.”[13] The ZipMold by Youthcraft — a slip made of satin Lastex and nylon net offered efficiency, style, and modernity in a “streamlined zipper” for no bulge or bulk.[14] Much of what women sought in suburban New York modernity was marketed for men as well. At Perry’s Shop for Men in Jackson Heights, shoppers might find the new Palm Beach suit, another harbinger of modern suburban life, that “bounces OUT wrinkles” with a patented “fiber-lock Method.”[15] The innovative, new fabrics and designs screamed a worry-free modernity for men and women on the move without the annoyance of having to adjust one’s clothing throughout the day. Fittings and alterations always came at no charge.

The Fit-All-Heel on Display Famous Fashion Shops Advertisement for Kayser, Queens Post, March 23, 1950.

The Fit-All-Heel on Display Famous Fashion Shops Advertisement for Kayser, Queens Post, March 23, 1950.

As in the rest of the country, during the Second World War nylon became “the magic fabric of the century.” There was a seemingly endless variety — opaque or translucent, solids or prints, taffeta or crepe. It was one of the many “magical fabrics that require nary a stroke of the iron to retain their lovely smooth aspects.” In this and other contexts, fashion became inseparable from innovation in fabrics and accessories, modern technologies, the hunt for affordable efficiencies, and the familiarity of neighborhood. A 1950 spring fashions spread in the Queens Post boasted that clothing was “a vital ever-changing part of our atom-paced, ever-changing world.”[16]

Into the 1960s, fashion and store promotions in Queens continued to highlight mass-produced garments developing alongside infrastructure, housing, and space age technologies. But the Queens new woman began to fade as an identifiable consumer target. In expanding outside the borough, Famous Fashion Shops inevitably lost some its local charm and character. In a pattern replicated in urban and suburban locales around the country, hundreds of local clothing stores and department stores in New York closed up shop. And the appeal of a local Queens shopping experience with a touch of Fifth Avenue withered as many of those who had come to the borough decades earlier moved further out on Long Island. For those who stayed, cultures of the organized neighborhood began to change along with what consumers wanted to buy along Queens’ important commercial boulevards. In promoting the 1960 Ball Britannica, a major Manhattan fashion event, the New York Times celebrated the import collections at Macy’s Department Store, sophisticated knockoffs of Paris haute couture. Without a fuss, the newspaper underlined the “local” character of the retail behemoth Macy’s — and the beginning of the end of the Queens consumer culture that Famous Fashion Stores had represented for decades: “A subway to Macy’s beats a jet to Paris….”[17]

Daniela Sheinin is a PhD candidate in the History Department at the University of Michigan. She specializes in United States cultural and urban history and is completing a dissertation on neighborhood formation in Queens.

Notes

[1] Einav Rabinovitch-Fox, “[Re]Fashioning the New Woman: Women’s Dress, the Oriental Style, and the Construction of American Feminist Imagery in the 1910s,” Journal of Women’s History, 27. 2 (2015): 15.

[2] Rabinovitch, 27.

[3] Sylvie Murray, The Progressive Housewife: Community Activism in Suburban Queens, 1945-1965 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003).

[4] “Famous Fashion Shops: The American Dream Come True,” Queens Post, June 1, 1950.

[5] “Famous Fashion Shops: The American Dream Come True,” Queens Post, June 1, 1950.

[6] “Hometown Echoes,” Queens Post, May 17, 1951.

[7] Nancy White. “Paris…Its Need and Its Deed.” Harper’s Bazaar. Import Show, September 18 1959. Box 146 Folder 6 1959, Fashion Group International (FGI) records, Archives and Manuscript Division, New York Public Library (NYPL), Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

[8] “Some Enchanted Evening, You’ll Love to Wear a Formal…”Queens Post, March 23, 1950.

[9] Julia Schrier, “At Home At Last,” Kew Hills News, September, 1955.

[10] “Famous Fashion Shops: The American Dream Come True,” Queens Post, June 1, 1950.

[11] Advertisement for Bur-mil’s Cameo stockings, Queens Post, March 23, 1950.

[12] Famous Fashion Shop Advertisement for “New lift for low necklines, Deep – ‘N Secret bra by Lilyett…Only 2.00,” Queens Post, April 13, 1950.

[13] Famous Fashion Shops Advertisement for Kayser, Queens Post, March 23, 1950.

[14] Famous Fashion Shops Advertisement for Kayser, Queens Post, March 23, 1950.

[15] “You’ve Never Had a Palm Beach Suit Like This Before!” Queens Post, June 22, 1950.

[16] Fashions for Spring: 1950 Modes Designed For Ease and Beauty,” Queens Post, March 16, 1950.

[17] “Ball Britannica,” Box 182, Folder 2, Fashion Group. Ball Britannica 1960. FGI records, Manuscripts and Archives Division, NYPL, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations