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