Fashion history is full of designers who were famous during their own time, but then then faded into obscurity. One designer name one rarely encounters today is Louise Barnes Gallagher, but during her career in the 1930s and 40s, she was a well-known, high-end designer of suits and ensembles.
She was also a bit of an author. I was delighted to find this book, Mary Bray, Fashion Designer, some months ago. Ms. Gallagher wrote it as part of a careers series for young people. Who better than to write a book about fashion designing than a fashion designer?
Like many books of this sort, written for teens with a message beyond the plot line, there really is no plot. It’s wartime, and Mary’s husband is missing in action. To get her mind off her problems, Mary returns to work as a designer. She gets involved at a USO type club, and is a little too flirtatious for my taste. But not to worry, Mary’s husband returns home and life returns to normal.
But don’t read this for the story, read it for the fascinating look it gives inside the clothing manufacturing industry of the 1940s. Gallagher did a good job of spelling out the inner workings of a Seventh Avenue fashion house, from the design table to trunk shows at a Dallas department store (not named, but clearly Neiman Marcus).
Here is how Mary Bray explained model sketching to an apprentice:
“The object is not just to make a pretty picture of someone in a good-looking dress, but to put in every seam, dart and detail, exactly as it is, not to add a line or take one away. Usually, these sketches for record purposes are done in pen and ink. If dress is out of the house, the factory may have to work from the sketch to make a repeat. All the information regarding the dress is written along-side the sketch, such as the price, color and material. anyone can refer to these sketches at any time, even years later, and get the correct information.”
Gallagher wrote several more books about careers in fashion, including Frills and Thrills and Buttons and Beaux. But who was Louise Barnes Gallagher? In an add sort of way, the book is loosely autobiographical, but with a happier twist.
Gallagher was a native New Yorker, and she entered the fashion business as a model. As in the book, she rose through the ranks, eventually becoming the designer at one of the many suit and coat manufacturers in the city. Also, like Mary Bray, her husband went off to war, in World War I. Unfortunately, Gallagher’s husband was killed.
By the mid 1920s, Gallagher was running her own business. For the next 25 years she produced dresses, suits and coat, and was especially known for her work in a fine wool she patented and called Gallagher Mesh. Gallagher Mesh had the look and feel of fine knit, but was actually woven. She was also known for her use of many buttons on a garment. These clothes were expensive and were sold in the finest stores, like Neiman Marcus.
Gallagher retired in 1949, but her company continued on for a few more years, and she designed suits and coats for a pattern company into the 1950s. She died in 1972.
Examples of Gallagher’s work are quite rare, so it was a delight to see a super ensemble currently for sale by VFG member, The Spectrum. What makes it so wonderful is that it does appear to be made from the Gallagher Mash, and the ensemble is complete with top, skirt, two belts and coat.