History suggests that as “big business” started to take hold in the late 1800s, women became more involved in business and working outside the home. However, few women owned companies. Those that did were in industries centered on women, such as home goods, apparel, or personal care.
Today, women own only 40% of businesses in the U.S., making Carrie Taylor’s business of the early 20th century that much more impressive.
Carrie Taylor was a dressmaker who began her business, the Mrs. A. H. Taylor Company, in 1878. Taylor developed the business early in her adult life and continued running it until her death in 1917. For nearly 40 years, the Mrs. A.H. Taylor Company was known for quality, lace-embellished dresses.
She designed fashions for individual women and employed many women who hand and machine-sewed her designs. She shopped for fabric and trims in Europe and designed unique garments for individual clients. Her success was partially due to the reputation she gained from her attention to detail, her creation of elaborately designed garments, and excellent workmanship.
In evaluating Taylor’s designs, especially the dress shown above, Dr. Carrie Cox (WKU, Assistant Professor, Fashion Merchandising) stated:
We don’t walk around with rectangular pieces of fabric awkwardly belted, pinned and waded up to fit our bodies. No, we rely on fashion designers to create fashions that fit our bodies, but how? It begins with controlling fullness. Designers turn 2-D fabrics into 3-D garments using a variety of techniques to control fullness. They gather (or shir), pleat, dart, and tuck fabrics in elaborate ways. They also apply elastic, drawstrings in casings, yokes and use seaming and knit fabrics that expand and contract to fit our bodies.
What techniques did Carrie Taylor use to control fullness in 1906? As we explore the shirtwaist, we can identify that she used shirring on the front and back shoulder areas. There are pleats on the front of the bodice. She shirred the sleeve cap to create a full sleeve at the top. The skirt is a series of gores that narrow at the waist, thus controlling fullness with seaming.
The other part of her success stemmed from a clientele base developed among the students of the Potter College for Young Ladies. Students, drawn from various parts of the South and Southwest, purchased custom-made dresses for various occasions. Continued patronage when students returned home provided word-of-mouth advertising for Mrs. Taylor’s dresses.
This advertising was complemented by Taylor’s own publishing, including her fashion magazine and catalog, Styles & Thegistofit. The publication featured fashion plates, which functioned as magazines in the 19th century before photography or periodicals existed. All clothing was custom-made, meaning your clothing was made to fit your body and with the fabric and details you desired. Dress makers were skilled at using the fashion plates as a guide to create fashionable clothing for women who were not skilled at sewing. Carrie Taylor created these sample cards with illustrations of her designs and paired them with fabric and trim samples:
A collection of nineteen garments produced by the Mrs. A. H. Taylor company is held by the Kentucky Museum at WKU, complemented by the personal and business papers of Mrs. Taylor held by the WKU Department of Library Special Collections.
These collections formed the basis for research and publications by WKU Professor of Textiles and Clothing Dr. Sallye R. Clark (1941-2019). Today, Dr. Carrie Cox is continuing this research, in collaboration with WKU fashion merchandising students. Dr. Cox’s research was joined by research conducted by Dr. Whitney Peake (WKU, Department Chair, Vitale Professor of Entrepreneurship, and Associate Professor – Management) and Dr. Kate Hudepohl (Associate Professor, Anthropology) in the 2019-20 exhibition, Out of the Box. You can also explore the Carrie Burnam Taylor collections online in KenCat.
In honor of Dr. Clark, the Kentucky Museum’s Collections Curator, Sandy Staebell, and Dr. Cox will present a Fall 2021 exhibition highlighting Taylor’s life and work and undertake conservation and restoration of the clothing. To do so, the Kentucky Museum is partnering with the Department of Interior Design and Fashion Merchandising in a SpiritFunder campaign, which will launch soon. Stay tuned!
We are currently seeking donations of any amount to support this project. Click here to learn more.