The Swirl Wrap Dress

Today I have another of the articles I wrote several years ago for my website.  I hope you enjoy it.

The Swirl wrap dress story starts in Philadelphia with the L. Nachman and Son Company, which was located at 10th and Berks Streets. This company had produced clothing since the early days of the 20th century.  By 1940 they were making a product called the Neat ‘N Tidy, which was a pinafore apron.  In 1944 the Swirl dress and label were born.  Actually, the Swirl was originally conceived as an apron. When Lawrence Nachman registered the Swirl name with the US Patent and Trade mark office, the product was listed as “WOMEN’S AND GIRLS’ WRAP-AROUND APRONS”.  The wrap around apron was a common garment of the day.

How the concept of an apron evolved into a dress is not known (by me, at any rate!) but at some point, the Swirl became a dress – not really a housedress, but one step above.  It was a quick and easy way for a busy housewife to get dressed in a hurry for a trip to the market, or for a casual supper on the patio.  As their slogan at the time put it, Swirl was…”YOUR WRAP “N” TIE FASHION”.

This 1940s Swirl is in the vintage-voyager.com collection.

According to the 1951 ad below, the Swirl pictured came in three patterns and cost about $9.  Vivian Vance’s character on the TV classic, I Love Lucy, Ethel Mertz, frequently wore this style Swirl in the early days of the program.

By 1953, Jack Nachman, president of the company, was looking to relocate the Swirl operation to the South.  First, they would to be closer to where the cotton fabrics they were using were being produced. This would save transportation costs.  Secondly, it’s very likely that they wanted a cheaper source of labor, which was easily found in the non-unionized South.

So Mr. Nachman went south, to Greenville, South Carolina. Through business contacts there he settled on the little town of Easley, about fifteen miles from Greenville. The location was ideal. The town was in the middle of the cotton belt – the area where cotton was grown and then made into cloth.  The textile industry was booming.  In fact, there were sixty-seven factories producing cotton fabric in the Greenville area, factories eager to supply their product to a new clothing production plant.

Photo courtesy of Cur.io Vintage, dress is now in my collection.

And labor costs were very cheap. Most of the people eventually employed at Swirl were women, and that combined with the absence of unions worked to keep wages low.

The Nachman Company started construction on the Easley Textile Company (as the new subsidiary was known) in October, 1953, and in January 1954 the new plant opened. The plant was state of the art, with all new machines from Singer. This is interesting, because when a plant relocated in this fashion, it was usual for all the old machinery and equipment to be moved to the new location.

By 1955, the company was known as Swirl, Inc., with the corporate headquarters in Easley. According to the local Chamber of Commerce, the money generated by the plant (along with that from another new factory in town) enriched the town coffers to the point where a long-delayed hospital project was finally finished. Soon, a second Swirl factory was built in nearby Ware Place, South Carolina.

At the same time, the product line was expanded widely. A wide variety of cotton print fabrics were readily available, and Swirl took full advantage of this. Swirls were made in hundreds of different fabrics, and were decorated with embroidery, applique, lace, piping, rick-rack, and a wide variety of trims. The basic shape of the dress was always the same, with a bodice and sleeves cut in one piece and a full, usually gathered, skirt. They used a signature “Swirl” button at the back of the neck.

A Park East by Swirl dress

This one dress, the wrap model, was the sole product of the plant until 1962.  At that time a second product, the Models Coat, was trademarked and produced by Swirl.  The Models Coat, which sounds glamorous, was just a straight cotton robe that snapped up the front.

The Swirl wrap dresses were also made, but they were getting shorter, as the age of the miniskirt was looming.  By 1964, the company could see that fashions were changing radically, and their product was quickly becoming out-moded.  Plans were made to update the image of the company.

A Swirl Girl Wrap dress

As lifestyles changed, so did Swirl.  In the 1960s Swirl began making women’s loungewear and developed different lines for a more diverse consumer base. The first addition was the Park East label in 1964.  Park East was used mainly on shift dresses, sort of in the Lilly Pulitzer mode.  In 1965 came Swirl Girl, a younger, trendier line of casual dresses and loungewear.

I’m not really sure when the last Swirl wrap dress was made, but I’ve seen them that were knee length and had care labels, so it is my guess that the wrap Swirl was still being made in the early 1970s. They also started making them floor length, as the fashion for floor lenght dresses re-emerged in the 1960s.

Swirl with Maxime Caftan

By the end of the 1980s, the main product at Swirl was the Models Coat.  In 1990, the first real signs of trouble for the company came when sewers were laid off and production curtailed.  The decline of the company occurred slowly through the 1990s, and in 1998, Swirl announced that it would be closing its main facility.  The remaining jobs were phased out, and the company closed the Easley factory for good in 1999.

They did continue operations in Ware Place, South Carolina, making the Models Coat. Today, that house coat, or duster, as my grandmother called it, is still being made in New York by Swirl II Ltd, using mainly imported fabrics. The factory is located in Brooklyn, New York.

Geoffrey Beene for Swirl dress

Next: Some hints on dating Swirl dresses.

17 Comments

Filed under Southern Textiles, Vintage Clothing

17 responses to “The Swirl Wrap Dress

  1. I remember the label. Also the “house dresses”! The “tent” dress was a huge trend in the 70’s! Designer sportswear mostly. Anne Klein designed one in sleeveless brown heavy linen-we had it at Garfinckels DC. My mom purchased it . Just gave it to my friend-she just wore it in Hamptons ! LOVE designer Vintage! Always in style!

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  2. Lizzie- speaking of fashion in Philadelphia-was a large manufacturing center-both-gentleman and Ladies. Albert and Pearl Nipon created exquisite silk clothes in Designer. If you aren’t familiar with them look them up!We sold them in a big way in DC!

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  3. The problem with wraps (dresses or skirts) is that if the fit isn’t just right there will be “gaposis,” as my mother used to say. I do like the dress in the first photo — looks as though the bodice wraps but it’s a one-piece skirt.

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  4. I’ve seen that Swirl ad many times, and the resulting dress always looked quite dowdy to me. It must be some association from my childhood. However, some of these dresses, like the one with the ship border print, look stylish and comfortable.

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  5. Another advantage of the cotton wrap dress — or “house dress”, or “wash dress” — was that they were easy to wash and iron. The Swirl wrap dresses didn’t have set-in sleeves, and were open all the way to the hemline, so they opened flat on the ironing board. (I wonder if ironing is a lost skill…?) I’m starting to think that big — preferably patch — pockets are also essential on a house dress — or a “model’s coat.” I remember model’s coats (aka dusters) with snap front closings in the 50s and 60s. When I got home from school, I had to take off my wool uniform and put on a “duster” to do homework and housework. Unlike a robe worn over a nightgown, a model’s coat was worn over all the usual daytime underwear: bra. slip, panties, etc., so you were ready to slip it off and put on a dress. My stepmother didn’t wear jeans or trousers for housework, either. She wore a house dress.

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    • I had never thought about how the design of the Swirl dress made it easy to iron, but you are absolutely correct. It was a garment made for convenience! My grandmother always wore a duster around the house, at least until lunchtime. Then she changed into a cotton dress.

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  6. Interesting history, Lizzie. I am now officially on the hunt for an early Swirl!

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  7. Pingback: Dating the Swirl Wrap Dress | The Vintage Traveler

  8. Linda F.

    Thanks for this trip down memory lane. My Grandmother had a same exact one Vivan Vance use to wear on Lucy – grey stripe with flowers at the neckline. I am a Philly girl and was not aware The Swirl was started here – another Philly First!!

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