Tag Archives: Juli Lynne Charlot

The 1950s Circle Skirt

I have some events to attend in the next little while, and two of them have put me to thinking about the 1950s full skirt.  A nephew is getting married, and the instructions for attire say that cocktail dresses are appropriate for the occasion.  Naturally, I could not help but think of the above cocktail themed skirt from Juli Lynne Charlot.  Somehow, I don’t think that is quite what they had in mind.

The other occasion is a bit easier.  It’s a 1950s themed whodunit dinner party where the instructions for attire say “Poodle skirt optional.”  I don’t have a poodle skirt, and I think it is such a shame that people think “1950s skirt” and automatically an image of a skirt with an appliqued poodle pops into the brain.  Yes, there were poodle skirts in the 1950s, but the range of novelty skirts available was so much more interesting than one doggie motif.

The decorated circle skirt actually got its start in the late 1940s, with an actress-turned-designer named Juli Lynne Charlot.   After WWII ended, skirts began to get fuller and longer.   The dirndl, a lightly gathered style popular throughout the war gave way to  skirts that were fully gathered or pleated.   In 1947, Charlot designed some skirts for the Christmas holidays, made of a complete circle and decorated with felt appliques.   A local store bought them, and they quickly sold out.

For her next project, it was suggested that Charlot do a line featuring dogs.  The first design was of three dachshunds, but among the dog skirts she designed was the poodle, and the rest is fashion history.  The skirt was a huge hit, and soon it was being widely copied.

Because the skirt was so easy to make, many were made by home sewers.  The major pattern companies had a wide variety of designs, including the poodle, 45 rpm records, and decks of cards.

The decorated circle skirt really caught on with the teenage set, and was pretty much a young and casual fashion.  You are much more likely to see one featured in a 1950s Seventeen than in a Vogue of the same era.  Many of them have decorations that reflect teen interests of the times, such as Rock & Roll themes.  But not all of these great skirts were for kids, as they did sometimes feature mature motifs such as alcohol and cigarettes.

There were also novelty printed skirts that were similar in feel to the appliqued skirts, but they were lighter and more suited to warm weather.  Border prints of exotic locales, circus themes, dog and kitten prints and Western scenes were among the many fabrics available to make full skirts.

There was even special fabric with the skirt pieces printed on, and all the sewer had to do was cut the pieces out and sew them together – no pattern required.  To see my collection of special printed travel themed skirts, visit a page on my fuzzylizzie.com site, Novelty Print Skirts.  You might even suggest one that you think I ought to wear to the 50s dinner!

Some of the most spectacular circle skirts of the 1950s came from Mexico.  These were made primarily for the tourist trade, but they were also imported into the United states and sold through catalogs and mail order.  Many were hand painted or block printed, and then they were lavishly decorated with sequins.  Most had scenes of sterotypical Mexican life, but others had large colorful flowers, or scenes of the desert.

 

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Filed under Novelty Prints, Proper Clothing, Vintage Clothing

Interview with Juli Lynne Charlot



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

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Madeleine Haskell, Magician’s Assistant, Wearer of Juli Lynne Charlot Skirts

A few months ago I got an email from a woman who had found my article on circle skirts to be of interest.   In the late 1940s and into the 1950s, her mother had worn Juli Lynne Charlot ensembles on stage in her role as assistant to her husband, magician Robert Haskell.

This is Madeleine Haskell, and she is wearing one of the many beautiful skirt ensembles that Juli Lynne Charlot made for her.  Kit Haskell, Madeleine’s daughter can remember going to the Charlot workshop where the skirts were ordered and made.  Some of the skirts had a magic theme, being decorated with cards  or with some of Robert’s magic tricks.  One was a “Guys and Dolls” theme.

As a four year old child, Kit had a dress that matched the one her mother is wearing above.  Her mother’s dress is now in Kit’s closet.

And the others?  All safely tucked away in storage.  Yes, that is right, Madeleine, now in her late 80s,  still owns these – a total of seven skirts. I think they would make a fantastic exhibit, along with the photos of Madeleine wearing them.

All photos copyright Madeleine Haskell

Comments:

Posted by Kit Haskell:

This is so much fun! I’m printing your blog and will take the pics down to Mom. Something about her in print!!! She hardly knows what a computer is but something in print she will understand. You are so generous to do this. I sent a copy to my brother. I so wish I could show you these skirts in person. Kit

Saturday, February 21st 2009 @ 10:19 AM

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Filed under Designers, First Person Stories, Vintage Clothing, Vintage Photographs