The slightly fuzzy girl in the photo is me, circa 1974. It was taken by my boyfriend (now husband!) at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville. I chose this particular photo not to show off how short I was wearing my skirts in 1974, but because I made the top from fabric I bought at the Vanderbilt factory outlet. At the outlet one could buy the finished products of the factory, and they also had a big bin of fabric pieces that were left over from their products.
I remember this fabric well because it was such a bear to sew. It was a two way stretch knit that had a mind of its own. The top is actually a bodysuit, and there is a zipper down the front. And you can’t tell, but what looks like dots are actually ladybugs. I loved that outfit.
Today my plea on my last post about Vanderbilt paid off. My post was seen by Pat Purvis whose mother Helen Watts had worked for the company. I was able to talk with Helen on the phone and got some great information about the company.
The Vanderbilt Shirt Company was started in 1946, and had no connection to the Vanderbilt family who built the Biltmore House. As Mrs. Watts put it, people in Asheville just like to name things for Biltmore and the Vanderbilts. The factory was located in downtown Asheville, on the corner of Walnut and Lexington in the building I showed last week. In the late 1960s there was a fire, started by a homeless man who had gone into the building to stay warm. Because of that, the owners built a new factory where they relocated in 1969.
My biggest question was how was Vanderbilt shirt connected to Langtry, Ltd. As it turns out, Langtry was a label that was actually started by the Vanderbilt Shirt Company. Previous to this label they did contract sewing for other companies like Levis and they made shirts and jackets for the US military. Most of the output of Langtry was women’s blouses, but they also made other women’s garments like dresses and jackets. Mrs. Watts was not sure about where the name Langtry came from, but thinks that it probably was named for actress Lillie Langtry.
As American companies began to outsource part of the manufacturing process, Vanderbilt Shirt Company turned to Haiti. For a while much of their product was made in Haiti, and this led to the ultimate undoing of the company. During the political unrest of the late 1980s following the ouster of the Duvalier dictators, the Vanderbilt factory in Port-au-Prince was destroyed along with all the machinery, the fabric and inventory. It was a hard blow from which the company never truly recovered.
The company limped along in a smaller facility on French Broad Avenue, until the early 1990s when they finally declared bankruptcy.
Before talking to Mrs, Watts, I just assumed that Langtry was just another victim of the flood of cheaper imported goods that was making it harder and harder for American manufacturers to compete. How much more interesting the story turned out to be.
Many thanks to Pat and Helen.