As promised, I want to share what I learned from my interview with designer Juli Lynne Charlot. Most vintage collectors know Charlot as the designer of some of the very best and most clever skirts to come out of the 1950s. But there’s more to Juli Lynne than just decorated skirts.
Juli Lynne didn’t set out to be a clothing designer; she had a beautiful voice and studied for the opera. Along the way she sang with Xavier Cugat’s orchestra, was soprano with the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera Company, and played straight “man” to the Marx Brothers while performing at military bases during WWII.
As a performer, Juli Lynne had strong ideas about how she wanted to look. She designed her stage wardrobe even though she could not sew. She hired a professional dressmaker to bring her designs to life.
Harpo Marx and Juli in a dress of her own design.
As the war came to a close, Juli Lynne met and married Philip Charlot. She gave up performing to be a post-war wife. In 1947 two seemingly unrelated events came together to start her career in fashion. First, fashion changed dramatically with the New Look. WWII fabric restrictions were lifted and hemlines dropped and skirts got full.
About the same time, Philip Charlot lost his job. Juli Lynne was a young woman who wanted to be in fashion but she had no money for the new styles. So she decided to make her own skirt for Christmas that year. Since she could not sew, she got some felt. It was the only fabric wide enough to cut a full circle skirt without making seams. Fortunately, her mother owned a factory which used felt, so she had a free source of it. Juli Lynne added some Christmas motif appliques and the result was so attractive that she made three more which she took to a Beverly Hills boutique. The store put them on the floor, and they quickly sold. The store reordered.
Juli Lynne today with a replica of the first poodle skirt
After Christmas the store requested a non-holiday design. They figured that dogs were popular so it was suggested that Juli Lynne make a dog-themed skirt. She came up with the idea of three dachshunds: two females and a male. The first dog was a flirty girl, the seconds one was a girl with her nose stuck in the air, and the third was the male who was trying to get to the flirty girl. But all the leashes became intertwined so the boy dog could only get to the stuck up girl.
The boutique loved the skirt and then requested a similar one with poodles. And so the iconic poodle skirt was born. Within a short time the president of Bullocks Wilshire called Juli Lynne. He had seen the dog skirts and he wanted her to do skirts for Bullocks. Not only that, he gave her the windows on Wilshire Boulevard to decorate with her skirts. She did a series of six designs for the windows.
Before long, Juli Lynne had orders from all over the country – Stanley Marcus at Neiman Marcus in Texas and Andrew Goodman at Bergdorf Goodman were early customers. By the time Juli Lynne was 24, she had a clothing factory and 50 employees. She decided it was time to learn to sew and so she started design school. She was so busy that she didn’t have time for the classes, so she quit, and then hired her sewing teacher. She learned how to sew on the job from this teacher turned employee.
One thing that made Juli Lynne Charlot skirts special was that, like the first dog skirts, they told a story. Juli Lynne wanted her clothing to be conversation starters. She made sure that the stores buying her clothes knew the stories behind the skirts so they could tell them to the customers.
Summer design from 1954
To go with her skirts, Juli Lynne made matching bustiers, stoles, boleros, halter tops and sweaters, and there were hats and handbags decorated to match the clothes (this was the 1950s, remember!) The factory also did custom work, as it did for Madeleine Haskell, magician’s assistant. In 1952, Leading Designer Patterns, a mail order pattern company, released one of her designs.
Photo copyright Madeleine Haskell
Although she is best known for her wonderful full skirts, Juli Lynne has had other clothing enterprises in her long life. Her last design venture started with a trip to Mexico in 1980. While there Juli Lynne fell in love with the classic Mexican wedding dress. She decided to do up-dated variations on this dress, bought a manufacturing plant in Mexico City to produce them and began exporting the dresses around the world. Everything was going well until the Mexico City Earthquake of 1985. Her factory collapsed, and though she tried getting her dresses made in New York, it was too expensive and so the business was lost.
Today Juli Lynne still lives in Mexico and is working on her memoirs. Now that’s a book I’ll gladly buy!
All the photos of Juli Lynne are copyright Juli Lynne Charlot
Posted by Anonymous:
Actually, growing up in SoCal in the 50’s, we had those felt circle skirts with holiday ornaments on them, now I’m wondering where my grandma got them. (and wishing they were still in a box somewhere at my mom’s!)
Posted by SewDucky:
This is great. I wish I had her body tho!Fantastic info and pictures, and well worth the read.
Posted by Lizzie:
I just got lucky. A woman who had been visiting a friend in Mexico who was a friend of Charlot’s returned home and googled Juli Lynne Charlot. She found the article I wrote on circle skirts which mentions Charlot, so she kindly emailed me to let me know Juli Lynne was in Mexico and doing great. Her friend in Mexico then put me in touch with Juli Lynne.Yes, she is a real beauty!
Posted by Louise Sleigh:
Thank you for posting such an interesting article. I’d known about the poodle skirts of course but being in the UK, hadn’t heard about Juli and now I’m a big fan.Please let us know when her memoirs are published. I would love a copy! Juli is quite a gal. For someone so young to set up her own business back then was quite something. I have every admiration for her. Wow! She looks incredible too!haha! What did the Spice Girls think they invented? Was it ‘girl power’ or something? Honestly! ;)Thanks again Lizzie. I’ve really enjoyed learning a little about Juli and her wonderful designs.
Posted by Lin:
what a fantastic life story – so wonderful to have this detail from the creator herself (and I hope she gets that memoir done!)
Posted by Gina Americana:
Thank you so much for this & all the other wonderful information you give us on your blog! I’m very interested in the provenance of American iconic clothing & your blog is a great resource.🙂
Posted by carrie:
What a great article, Lizzie! It’s fascinating to hear the spontaneous way Juli Lynne’s career took shape… And I love the photos–especially the one with Harpo Marx!
Posted by Karen/SmallEarthVintage:
Another wonderful and informative post, Lizzie! Thank you so much–I didn’t know the story of the poodle skirt. Inspiring story, and that photo of Ms. Charlot with Harpo Marx is hilarious! I love the pink elephants skirt pictured here.
Posted by Jonathan:
Posted by MS:
Another Lizzie blog fan here & this is a great article!Juli Lynne is not only gorgeous (to this day) but so inspiring & so talented & creative. I love her spirit as much as her clothes and I too will be looking forward to her memoirs.I love how this whole article evolved & the info is great. Another winner!
Posted by Steph @ Tart Deco:
Great story! I am going to try and fit in a blurb on Juli Lynn in my Masters Thesis, which is on women in Rockabilly music but also about women who stood out in the 50s.
Posted by Inky:
lizzie – i learn so very much from you and your blog! thank you for this interesting slice of design for such an iconic look.
Posted by Mod Betty / Retro Roadmap:
I love the stories behind the clothes, like the fact that she used felt b/c she didn’t know how to sew, or Lilly Pulitzer using bright patterns to cover up juice stains. I learn something new every day- thanks for this one!
Posted by Victoria:
Love the article, thanks so much for the great information and pictures. I would also like to read her memoirs.
Posted by Holly:
Posted by Sarah:
I’ve been waiting for this post after your teaser earlier on, and it doesn’t disappoint! What an amazing life this lady has lead – and I’m pleased to discover that she’s still going strong.As a hopeless seamstress she is an inspiration to me. Congratulations on your interview and such a great article.
Posted by samsara:
What a terrific article. And what an inspiring story. Like other commenters, I love how she came to use felt out of necessity. Thank you, Ms. FuzzyLizzie, for finding this amazing woman and bringing her to us.
Posted by Linda:
We are proud to nhave Juli as a first cousin to my husband. Her life stories are full of hard work and great pleasure. We love her.
Posted by Lizzie:
Linda, you must have a lovely family with Juli a part of it! I could sit and listen to her all day.
Posted by Jackie Strano:
Lizzie,Thank you for helping me get in touch with Juli. I’ll be heading down there this summer to meet and chat. Keep you posted if you’d like?
Posted by Lizzie:
Jackie, That is great news! Juli emailed me after your call and I know she is looking forward to your visit. Please do keep me posted!
Posted by Liz DeFoe:
Back in the early 1960’s Julie hired me as her model for her showroom in NYC. She then was a rep for several California designers. I have fond memories of my time working for her. She is a lovely woman.
Posted by Lizzie:
Liz, how nice of you to post. It sounds like you had a dream job!