A Life in Fashion—Irene Saltern

Today I’m pleased to share with you a guest post from Lynn Mally.  Lynn is retired from the University of California, Irvine, as a teacher of Russian and European history, and today she devotes her time to studying the  relationship between older women and fashion.  She writes about her findings on her blog, AmericanAgeFashion, which should be on your reading list.  Recently her university acquired the personal archives of designer Irene Saltern, and Lynn has been busy studying the contents of the 64 boxes that make up the archive.

German American designer Irene Saltern (a merging of her maiden name Stern and her married name Salinger) has a long list of credits in the fashion industry. She worked in journalism, millinery, costume design, and most notably as a sportswear designer during her long life (1911-2005). You can trace her achievements in her personal archive recently acquired by the University of California, Irvine. A treasure trove of information about Jewish emigration from Nazi Germany, fashion design for the movies, and the history of California sportswear, this archive documents Saltern’s buoyant energy and creativity.

Working in an archive is a little like opening dusty boxes in a garage or attic. They may have general labels (“family letters, photographs”), but you don’t really know what you will find until you work through the files. This particular collection is divided into four parts—a small collection of historical fashion plates, drawings and photos of her work in the movie industry, records of her career as a fashion designer, and family documents.

The largest part of the collection comes from her years as a fashion designer. There are boxes of sketches and advertisements from her first job at Hollywood Premiere, starting in 1943, to her last designs for sportswear company Disegni in the late 1970s. Her work for Tabak of California is particularly well represented. Here she developed the “Tabak Tie-ins,” coordinated sets of separates. As one newspaper article stated: “Irene Saltern, talented designer for Tabak of California, has used great imagination in creating what she terms ‘capsule’ wardrobes. In each group individual fashions have been so meticulously worked out, both as to fashion and color, that two or three or four of a group [make] a complete wardrobe.”

Saltern made her reputation in sportswear by using two basic concepts. First of all, she discovered that she could use the tricks employed by costume designers to make actresses look taller and slimmer and apply these concepts to ready-to-wear collections, something that she called “illusion dressing.” Second, she recognized early on that California was not simply a place but was also a state of mind. In a publicity statement for Hollywood Premiere, she wrote: “Today’s Sportswear is not any more what to wear when active in sports – it’s what to wear for a casual kind of life; when you are at home, when you entertain, when you work, when you play. It’s the kind of informal life which is a specialty of California, but it’s a mode of living which is spreading all over the nation.”

The records for Saltern’s work at Tabak of California are particularly extensive. They include line drawings, formal fashion sketches, photographs, and sales information, including written pep talks for sales representatives. As is common in many archives, drawings and photos were not carefully dated. After all, Saltern was keeping business records, not an archive for posterity. Someone who wanted to write a definitive study of her work would have to check these files against published advertisements and other records.

I particularly loved those folders that included fabric swatches. Saltern used silks and flannels, but she also experimented a lot with the new synthetics with now forgotten names like Celanthrene, Duponol and Ondale. She wanted her clothes to be easy wear and easy care, experimenting early on with faux fur and faux leather products. In one interview, she stated her design philosophy in a nutshell: “Interesting fabric, color, clean skimming lines, styling that is comfortable and smart, easy to wear but never quite basic.”

If you are interested in Saltern’s career and/or the history of California sportswear, this collection is an eye opener. Come take a look!

The two photos above show a great example of a Tabak  ‘capsule’ wardrobe.  I’m lucky to have such a wardrobe in my collection.

All illustrations:  Special Collections, University of California, Irvine

My thanks to Lynn for sharing information about this valuable archive, and for adding to the Irene Saltern story.


Filed under Designers

11 responses to “A Life in Fashion—Irene Saltern

  1. Wonderful post. I didn’t know anything about Irene Saltern. I love the combination of green and purple in the Hollywood Premiere outfit. I just took a quick look at Lynn’s blog and now feel compelled to read the whole thing! She touches on some issues I’ve been thinking about the past few days, so I can’t wait to dive in.


  2. I am the lucky owner of several hundred pieces of apparel from Irene’s estate, and can attest to her fabulous use of fabrics, particularly silks and wools, her design style which was both timeless and innovative, and the total everyday “wearability” of her fashions.


  3. I am always amazed that we think we are inventive with things like sports lux, illusion dressing and capsule wardrobe…we are so not. Credit where credit is due x


  4. Great post! I love the outfit in the ad at the top. I also love that the idea of illusion dressing for “regular” women came out of making actresses appear taller and slimmer. I remember there was a store at our local mall in the 1980s that sort of used this concept…where you could buy a few coordinating pieces to make up an entire wardrobe. They were *not* as lovely as these Tabak Tie In pieces!

    Thanks for the interesting post Lynn, and thank you, Lizzie, for the new blog to follow!


  5. I really enjoyed writing this, Lizzie. If anyone is interested in checking out what the archive holds, there is a list of its contents here: http://www.oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/kt0c6022rp/


    • Lynn, thank you so much for this wonderful piece! I’m going to check out the content list as soon as possible. Irene Saltern was an amazing woman, not just an amazing designer, and it’s wonderful to see her story finally getting out to a wider audience!


    • Thank you for sharing, Lynn! (And thanks, Lizzie, for letting her guest post!) I’ve always loved using costuming guides when dressing myself – it really is all an illusion! And it works! =)


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