Lilli Ann: early years through 1940s
A great deal has been written about the 20th century suit and coat label Lilli Ann, but I feel like not a lot of it gets as personal as I usually do with my Meet A Designer posts. So I’m going to do a short series of these, somewhat chronologically, focused on founder Adolph Schuman, his first head designer Jean Wright, and her successor Billie Dugan. With this post, I’m going to mainly discuss the early years of Lilli Ann’s success, from about 1940 to 1950 (for a great discussion of the company’s years prior to 1944 see this blog post at Pintucks).
Schuman’s father Philip emigrated to San Francisco from Hungary around 1890; his mother Rose was born and raised in California. Philip owned a jewelry store on at 133 Geary Avenue. Adolph was born in 1907, his brother Jerome was born two years later. By 1930 Adolph was working as a dress salesman and in 1933 he married his first wife Lillian Brown, a Polish immigrant living in Oakland. He worked his way up through the wholesale dress business until about 1934 when he went into business for himself and partnered with a Rudolph Kutsche, a friend who had loaned him $800 to start the Lilli Ann company to manufacture women’s suits. By 1940 the company was nationally advertised, and the company’s designer, Jean Wright, was credited on their first label, “Original by Jean.”
“‘Original by Jean’–when you see that label in a costume suit it stands for a design by Miss Jean Wright, selected by a national fashion magazine this fall as the most capable designer of her type in America… Adolph Schuman, business head of the [Lilli Ann] firm, and partner with Miss Wright, points with pride to the streamlining effects achieved by his designer. ‘Our garments will add two inches to the height and take off 15 pounds of weight in the appearance of any woman,’ he said.”
– San Francisco Chronicle, September 16, 1940
An ad for a “costume suit”– a satin and wool dress with a matching wool jacket–from 1941:
Jean Wright was born in Washington state in 1915. Her father died when she was just two years old leaving her mother Nettie with two children, Jean Elizabeth and her older brother Clayton. Nettie moved the family to California, eventually settling in San Francisco. Around 1935, she went to work for Schuman as a model, but by 1936 was also their patternmaker. “The salary of $65 a month was more than we could afford for just a model, so we decided to spend $150 to send Jean to school to learn pattern-making. That way we could double up her duties. She turned out to be such a whiz at patterns that she became our first full-fledged designer, until she quit to marry… even then, as Jean Wright Miller, she was our consultant until her death,” Schuman recalled. Jean actually stayed at Lilli Ann for years and didn’t exactly “quit to marry” – she married Galen Miller in 1949 but was vice president of the company by 1948 and continued to design Lilli Ann suits until about 1952. Here, Schuman and Jean Wright at Ciro’s in West Hollywood, hosting a Lilli Ann fashion show in November 1944:
Jean Wright, San Francisco designer, chose Hollywood for the first formal showing of her original ‘salon suits,’ presented for the fashion press yesterday at Ciro’s. In lovely fabrics created for her collection, Miss Wright features suits that were a complete departure from the conventional. By combining the practical points of the tailleur with the feminine appeal of a beautiful dress she has given a distinctive new look to her suit costumes. Clever ornamentation accents pointed up the overall theme of each outfit and color was stressed throughout the line.”
Fay Hammond, LA Times, November 3, 1944
As with most labels and designers, Wright’s name ultimately wasn’t on the label after 1943, and Schuman got most of the credit. [Sidenote: the flowers that Wright is wearing on her jacket here are possibly orchids grown by Schuman, who cultivated them as a hobby and often gave them as gifts. I mention that only because I find it illustrative of his awareness of beauty, of shape, and of detail.] The company’s popularity continued to grow, and by 1945 was advertised in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Glamour, as well as newspapers across the country. This advertisement is from September 1944:
“From California, these strikingly individual new cardigan suits in soft 100% woolens. (Right) “Purple Pirate,” a new interpretation, with a wonderful shoulder line, soft draping climaxed by a mock tortoise dagger fastening. In spruce green, brown; (left) wool crepe suit punctuated with diagonal slot seaming and two magnificent prystal buttons. In grey, blue and black. 39.75.” Dallas Morning News, September 13, 1944.
Schuman distinguished their post-war years from those during WWII in ways that have nothing to with rationing of fabric or supplies. In the late 1940s, Schuman described a shift in suits from the “pickup” look to get a “quickie romance” during World War II to the “husband-getter” model of the post-war world. Before, he says, a “gal had to be a quick eyeful during the war, what with the hustle-bustle pace of things.” If that doesn’t make you uncomfortable enough, he went on to say, “Women want to attract the opposite sex always, but not for fly-by-night dates. We had to change with the times… The men force that change. They want to settle down with homes and families now that the world is no longer torn apart,” he said in August 1947. In other words, men were growing uncomfortable with women being independent and bold, and wanted them to return to the demure femininity they exhibited before the war so as to not threaten men’s superior position in society. So, the suits that Wright designed in the mid-1940s, until about 1947, were showy, with lots of fur trim, interesting asymmetry, giant buttons and gaudy jewelry, even reptile skin. By contrast, her work in the late 1940s and early 50s, until about 1952, featured suits that were long in the jacket, relaxed through the skirt, slim but not exaggeratedly tight through the waist, with understated but interesting details. Bell, pleated or “angel wing” sleeves were supposed to be a design element ensuring a “husband-getter” look, the inside lining supposed to be some sort of flirtatious but chaste detail. Giant bell sleeves, pleated or not, were a Lilli Ann design motif throughout the company’s history.
Thus, with the goal of making women “a quick eyeful”, their wartime suits and those immediately following the war have alluring names, dramatic lighting and suggestive, borderline campy details. Suit designs had names like “Purple Pirate” above and “Princess of Java”, and dripped with tiny swords or chains or–no shit–giant sleeves made of genuine python skin.
This example, the “London Lass”, appeared in California Stylist trade magazine in November 1945. “Lilli Ann’s London Lass–briskly steps along in a slim young suit with a looped shoulder aiglet on a romantic Silhouette. Retails at about $59.75. At finer stores throughout the country.”
Their suits of this era mostly shared a few basic shapes, one being a belted tunic jacket of varying lengths with small or no lapels (a cardigan style), and a slim to aline skirt, with variations on trim or sleeves. Of these, Jungle Allure (1945) is by far my favorite with giant reptile sleeves, along with one called Cobra (1946) featuring the reptile detail around the waist, both making much more sense in the context of Schuman’s statement above.
Ample pleated sleeves were a common design feature in the mid- to late-1940s, as seen in these examples from 1946:
Wright made excellent of use asymmetry, scale and contrast, often employing diagonal closures, extremely large buttons or two-tone jackets.
But a marked shift occurs between 1947 and 1948, the one that Schuman describes above, from the dramatic eyeful to a more subdued, tailored and sophisticated look.
This look stayed fairly consistent through 1950, with slim hips, slightly padded shoulders, and very tailored lines.
There is a lot of misinformation floating around about how to date Lilli Ann suits according to their labels, for good reason. First, there were years when they were transitioning and used more than one type of label, so it’s difficult to say that a certain label was the only one used between this date and that. Second, their 50s suits often had strong shoulders and peplums, and so many years later these two things have almost become fashion shorthand for the 1940s. This isn’t a huge problem, except when sellers mistakenly market a demonstrably 1950s suit as a rare early 1940s example and use that fact to justify an even higher price than normal. So, in general, these are the labels of Lilli Ann suits from the 1940s (with the exception of the Original by Jean labels and possibly another one used from 1943-1945):
That’s it, with the exception of an even earlier label that hasn’t been well documented. Any other labels that reference Paris were not used until the mid- to late-1950s. In June of 1940, Paris was occupied by German Nazi forces and was effectively cut off from the rest of the world in terms of fashion, and it wasn’t until well after WWII that Schuman would begin working with French fabric mills or trying to promote American fashion in Paris, something I’ll talk more about in the next post in this series. If you see a label like this that says “Paris – San Francisco” it is a later label and not from the 1940s.
How do I know all this? After all, there are some very credible sources that disagree with my findings by several years. My conclusions are the result of painstakingly cataloging every newspaper and magazine ad I could find from the 1940s and 50s, collecting suits themselves and matching up known examples to their advertisements for dating purposes. As you can see above, many newspaper advertisements also included a drawing of the label, which helps further in dating the labels themselves. But even this isn’t always helpful; when the advertising style changes in late 1948 to the George Hurrell photographs inset on white and the new script logo at the top–the one we’re most familiar with–the label did not change right away, and appears to have transitioned between fall and winter 1949 based on the examples and documentation I’ve seen. Generally speaking, the earliest example of the cream San Francisco label I’ve seen is from December 1949. I’ve also seen multiple examples of a jacket from one of these transition years with different labels, so these aren’t hard and fast rules, but are useful guidelines. For example, a common design feature in the 40s was this immense pleated sleeve, shown above in an ad from late 1946, and I’ve seen examples of jackets with this sleeve in real life with all three of these early labels (not at the same time, duh).
Sidenote: notice how these labels are attached. The cream labels are stitched at regular intervals in cream thread, and the black labels are attached at the corners with black thread. The later 50s/60s label is machine stitched.
I’ve been lucky enough to find a few of these 1940s Lilli Ann suits and one coat.
If you compare the first and the last, you can see just how much the style changed from the years immediately following the war to the start of the New Look. Next in the series, I’ll talk about the brand’s transition from the tailored but understated look of the late 40s to the extreme peplums and European fabrics of the mid-1950s.