I have recently started my internship at the Special Collections and FIT Archives . One of my projects involves a collection created by Madame Marge’, donated to FIT by her sister, daughter and grand-daughter in 1957. Chances are, like me, you never heard of Madame Marge’. Well, for me, discovering designers lost to history is a true pleasure, and one that provides the chance to flex my research muscles. My assignment is to create a finding aid for this collection, which is essentially a research tool that helps scholars and researchers to get a better idea of what the collection contains before they come in to view it.
The collection includes several boxes, three of them contain incredible water-colored women’s fashion illustrations, each accompanied by a swatch of fabric or trim. In addition each illustration is labeled with an original Studio Marge’ Chicago stationary including its name, price, fabric information and even available colors. Another box contains black ink sketches with hand written notes, concerning fabric, length of material needed for the model and other technical information. From a fashion researcher stand point this is a true treasure, and an opportunity. As beautiful as the sketches are, it is the context that gives them meaning. Who made them? when and why? What were they used for?
The fifth box was helpful in dusting off some of the mystery surrounding this unknown designer. It contains one thick scrap book which was put together by the donors, with pictures of Madame Marge’ and her family, some biographical information, images from her Batik collection (more about that soon) and paper clippings regarding the collection and her work from various American publications. This was very helpful, it provided some key information about the designer, information which was not readily available in any other source online or elsewhere.
So who was this mysterious Madame Marge’?
Despite the pseudo French name she was actually born 1878 in Philadelphia as Marguerite Norlin. She run a successful fashion firm between the two World Wars and had studios both in Chicago and Madison Ave., New York. She designed under her own name but also sold her original designs to other American fashion houses and retailers. She won several awards for originality in fashion design, and in 1915 the sketches that won her her first Gossard Trophy were featured on the front page of Women Wear Daily, she went on to win two more Gossard Trophies by 1918.
Madame Marge’ apparently had great skills in draping, as she was invited to drape a model in front of an audience in an event held in her home town Philadelphia for the British designer Lucile (Lady Duff Gordon) and included the designer’s fashion show. It is said, by the donors, that later on in her career she had made other such presentations in front of audience and students in universities across the country and had a great desire to educate others and share her knowledge and skills.
In 1926 she broke tradition when she showed the wedding gown designed for her soon-to-be-married daughter in a fashion show held by the Fashion Art League in Chicago. At that time it was extremely nontraditional practice to show a bride’s gown in public before the day of the wedding. The collection at FIT includes five ink and watercolor illustrations of wedding gowns which might have been sold at the retail store Marshall Field & Co. from these two bits of information we can draw that Madame Marge’ was quite known for her bridal gowns.
It seems that Madame Marge’ was all for new experiences and exploration, in 1936 she created one of her most successful collections the Batik Collection. Earlier, in 1935, she was approached by a fabric merchant who suggested to her fabrics purchased in Bali, based on the fact that she successfully experimented with other exotic fabrics, such as Indian scarves, in the past. She liked the printed cottons her offered, but asked that the patterns and colors be adjusted to the taste of her American clients. Her instructions were delivered to the craftsmen in Bali, meanwhile she started to drape and prepare the patterns for the collection. Early in 1936 she received the fabrics, printed in Balinese traditional style yet in keeping with her guidelines. the collection she created was a hit, it included day dresses, beachwear, evening gowns and even accessories. the usually low-profile exclusive business she run, suddenly got her quite a lot of press, which is documented in paper clippings now found in the collection at FIT.
The picture below is the earliest example I found of her work, this 1910 dress was offered for sale on the website bustledress.com and further demonstrates the range of her skills as a designer.
It seems, from the varying styles and the range of her creativity, the Madame Marge’ responded to trends and fashions of her time yet was innovative and original. How come so little in known about her? Was it not for the donation her family made to both FIT and the Philadelphia Museum of Art she might have been completely forgotten. Scholar Madelyn Shaw explains in her research dedicated to the Tirocchi sisters that at the time “there were probably dozens of women like her, successful to varying degrees, who survived primarily through word of mouth, as the Tirocchi sisters did, and who in fact preferred to keep a low profile and an exclusive clientele.”
Well, I guess it’s up to us fashion scholars and researchers to make sure Madame Marge’ and her like will be remembered and appreciated for their contribution to the American fashion world.
***Many thanks to Filomena D’Elia who wrote an unpublished research about Madame Marge’, and for Madelyn Shaw for their kind help.
Madelyn Shaw, American Fashion: The Tirocchi Sisters in Context http://tirocchi.stg.brown.edu/essays/print/shaw.html
Philadelphia Museum of Art http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/144036.html?mulR=21126
1910 Marguerite (Madame Marge’) evening gown