Tag Archives: Tina Leser

Tina Leser

Quite a few years ago I wrote this profile on designer Tina Leser for my now inactive website. I thought I had shared it here, but a search for it turned up empty. I’ve been showing some of myLeser pieces on Instagram, so this is a good time to share an updated version here as well. I apologize for the tiny pictures, and for the poor quality. These were taken years ago. I’ll be replacing them, hopefully soon.

 

A rarely seen photograph of Tina Leser, made in 1950. She appears to be wearing a dress of her own design. The photo was taken at her farm on Long Island, and she is seen here with her Great Dane, Taxi. Photo copyright and courtesy of Andrejs Sinats.

Tina was born Christina Buffington in 1910. She was later adopted and her name changed to Christina Wetherill Shillard-Smith. She was the daughter of an affluent Philadelphia stockbroker and his artist wife. The family traveled widely, and as a young child, Tina visited Asia, Europe and Africa, and for a time, lived in India. When it came time to choose a career, she settled on art school, and attended first the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and then the Sorbonne, in Paris.

In 1931, at the age of 21, Tina married Curtin Leser, and the two of them moved to Honolulu, Hawaii. It was here that Tina Leser began her career in fashion. She opened a shop in 1935, in which she sold clothing that she designed. Leser used native Hawaiian, and imported filipino fabrics to construct sportswear, day wear and gowns. She then worked with a process to hand-block designs onto sailcloth. As an artist, she often handpainted a fabric to order. A customer might order a special skirt with the family pet hand painted on it.

Here is a great example of a 1940s Leser skirt. The fabric is a Guatemala woven design. Courtesy of listitcafe.com

In 1940, Tina Leser went to New York on a buying trip and to try and sell her designs. Partly through the influence of Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow, she placed an order with Saks for 500 garments.  She continued to live and work in Honolulu, but in 1941, decided to expand her business to New York. She closed her Honolulu store in 1942 after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and moved to New York.  There she ran her company until the next year, when she became the designer at Edwin H. Foreman.  It was at Foreman that Tina Leser developed the international style for which she became famous.

It was wartime, and travel around the world was quite limited for the private citizen.  But Leser looked for, and found interesting cultural influences close to home – Mexico, Guatemala, Hawaii, and the USA countryside.  From Mexico she took the traditional appliqued flannel jackets and added sequins.  From Guatemala she took their handwoven cloth and made skirts and playsuits.  Their blanket fabric was turned into strapless dresses.

She utilized Hawaiian shapes – the sarong and the wrap skirt, and also used Hawaiian fabrics to make an innovative bathing suit that had just one strap.  And she referenced the United States by taking the coveralls adopted by so many American women factory workers, and making attractive versions in flannel and plaid.

photo courtesy of Lin Allen

In the postwar era, India was very much in the news, and in Tina Leser’s mind.  Having spent part of her childhood in that country, it was natural that India’s move toward independence would inspire her to base many of her designs on the country’s ethnic clothing.  She began the first of many designs based on the fabrics, colors and shapes of Indian traditional clothing. In 1947 she did a line of beachwear and sundresses made of traditional Indian madras plaid,

‘In the lines and colors of my beachwear,’ she said, ‘I try to capture the spirit of leisure and play in which it is worn. Successful design always reflects purpose…’

The Honeymoon collection was featured in the November, 1949 issue of Holiday magazine.

One of most remarkable events in Tina Leser’s career was her honeymoon, She was remarried in 1948 to James Howley (she and Leser had divorced in the late 1930s), and for their honeymoon the pair took a trip around the world.  Actually, it was an inspiration-finding expedition, and it led to her Fall 1949 multi-cultural collection.

The influences were gathered from what she would see on every step of her journey – kimonos from Japan, silk pajamas from China, a priest’s coat from Thailand, the colors and embroideries of Indian fabrics, peasant clothing from Italy, antique fashion plates from France and porcelains from England – all influenced her fall line.

In the photograph above, you can see how traditional Indian punjab pants were interpreted by Ms. Leser.  She continued to reinvent this basic ensemble throughout her career.

After 1949, Leser continued to reference a variety of ethnic influences, often mixing them in a single garment or collection. For example, she might take a purely American fabric such as the red and white check commonly used in picnic tablecloths, and sew it into an item with an Oriental-influenced shape such as a sarong or kimono.

Leser also liked to take a “casual” fabric and use it for a “formal” function. An example would be the same gingham tablecloth cotton sewn into a party dress. Or she might take a formal fabric and use it for a casual function, as in the case of her elaborately printed and embroidered bathing suits.

She also liked to take a favorite fabric or trim and use it across her collection. I’ve seen embroidery very similar to what is on this bathing suit made into a hostess gown, trimming the edges of a cashmere sweater, and made into a pair of slacks.

A great example is this wrap dress made from cotton sateen. It was featured in the May 1956 issue of Good Housekeeping, and earned their seal of approval.

But so that you don’t start thinking that all Tina Leser could design was exotic and foreign-inspired, she also used fabrics from some of the very best fabric design firms.  Most notably, she had designs using the “Modern Master” series of fabric from Fuller. This was a series of fabrics commissioned by Fuller Fabrics by some of the world’s most prominent artists, such as Picasso and Miro.  She also used Wesley Simpson prints, Hope Skillman fabrics and Boussac florals. And she loved and used cashmere, both from the American firm Dalton, and the Scottish Pringle.

She designed lots of pretty dresses that today, would be considered to be quite dressy, but in the late 1940s and into the 1950s, were much more casual than what most people were accustomed to wearing.

Tina Leser left Foreman in 1953 to form her own company, Tina Leser Originals. In the 1950s, women needed clothes for an increasingly casual lifestyle, and Leser’s pieces were casual but sophisticated.  People were entertaining at home, and many of Leser’s ads during the 1950s show a relaxed hostess curled up in a pair of her slacks and a comfortable tunic.

She perfected (some references say “invented”) the slim toreador pants of the 1950s, which were often paired with exotic tunics or cashmere sweaters trimmed with embroidered edgings. And in 1957 she showed a cashmere sweater that was dress length, bringing about the inception of the “sweater dress.”

She entered into a design arrangement with Gabar Swimsuits, and she designed for them for many years.  She’s often thought of as a swimsuit designer, mainly because her work for Gabar was so wide-reaching.

But it was not just the swimsuit she was designing – it was a whole new way of wearing it.  The cover-ups and skirts and matching shorts and wraps incorporated the design of the swimsuit beneath into a complete ensemble.  The bathing suit became the foundation for streetwear.

In 1964, Leser closed her business, only to open it again in 1966.  Her first collection after her re-opening was a tribute to India, with the fabrics being made on traditional Indian looms. She continued to make clothing that was oriental in feel, but she concentrated less on sportswear, and more on clothing was was adaptable to many situations, be it evening, day or at home.  Her fabrics were still very much inspired by her travels.

Tina Leser Originals remained open until 1982. Leser died four years later in 1986.

April Calahan, “Tina Leser: Global Vision”, The Hidden History of American Fashion, 2018

Chambers, Bernice G., Fashion Fundamentals. New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1947.

Lambert, Eleanor, World of Fashion. New York: R.R.Bowker Company, 1976.

McDowell, Colin, McDowell’s Directory of Twentieth Century Fashion. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1985.

Stegemeyer, Anne, Who’s Who in Fashion. New York: Fairchild Publications, 1980, 1988.

10 Comments

Filed under Designers

Shopping for Vintage Online 101

I was inspired to make this post by recent comments made here and elsewhere about the perils of online shopping.  These comments have got me to thinking about my own buying habits, and whether or not I could give any advice to people who feel buying online is a mine field.
First, I’ve been buying vintage clothing online for twelve and a half years.  In that time I’ve seen a lot of changes, but one thing has remained constant:  not all people selling vintage and antique clothing know what they are selling.
I’m stating this outright because there seems to be a perception that the clueless vintage seller is a recent phenomenon.  That’s not true at all.  The clueless have always been around; it’s just that there are so many more of them today.  The difference is that ten years ago the uneducated vintage seller didn’t have many ways to learn about his or her products, as opposed to today where there is vintage info overload on the web.  Sites like the VFG’s Label Resource have made it very easy for sellers to learn about what they have, so why are so many garments misidentified? Why are dresses from 2000 being sold as vintage from 1950 or 1970?

I guess there are as many answers to that question as there are sellers.  It could be laziness, or dishonestly, or greed, or simply just a lack of caring.  Many people who are buying vintage to wear care nothing about the age of the garment; they care only about the “look.”  The same can be said for sellers who are selling an image rather than a garment.

 

So what can you do to make sure the vintage you buy is what the seller says it is?
1.  Buy from sellers you know and trust.
If you have bought great items in the past, go back to your records to see who the sellers were.  Check to see where they are now selling.  Many wonderful ebay sellers are still there, but many now have their own sites or sell at places like etsy and Ruby Lane.  Find and bookmark their sites.  Build a list of sellers who you and people you know have actually shopped with successfully.
Shop with members of the Vintage Fashion Guild.  All members of VFG have to be approved for membership by showing they have a high level of standards and vintage knowledge, and these standards have to be maintained.  There are many super sellers who are not members, but checking for VFG membership does provide a measure of assurance that the seller is a professional.
Hint:  Most VFG members tag their etsy items with VFG.
2.  Ask questions before buying.
If you are not entirely sure about an item contact the seller to see if you can get your concerns addressed.  One thing I hate is when a seller does not include a label photo, so I will email and ask if they will send a photo of it to me.  Even if the label is an obscure one, a lot can be learned from it.  A 1950s label usually has a very different font from a modern one.   If there is not a label, ask to see a photo of where a seam meets the hem.  Learn to tell the difference between modern and vintage sewing construction.
A word about questions:  Please do not grill a seller about every little detail, especially if this info can be found in the item description.  And please, no questions about what the seller paid for the item.  Yes, people really do ask that question of sellers!
3.  Educate yourself about vintage styles and construction.
I know some sellers who can date any garment within a few years of its manufacture, but many times the seller is just guessing, especially if they are not very experienced.  Just because a seller thinks their item is a 1930s frock does not always make it so.  Do your homework.  Know what the styles were.  Most libraries will have books on fashion history and most cities have vintage clothing stores so take advantage of them to learn more.
4.  Read the entire listing carefully.
Some people seem to think it is alright to say in their item title that it is from the 1950s, but in the description itself, they will admit that it probably is later and just looks like it is from the 50s.  Read very carefully to make sure there is not such language hidden on the fine print!
It is also important to read carefully to see how the condition of the item is described.  If there is no indication of condition, see #2.
5.  Have a list of standards that sellers must meet and stick to it.
Sometimes it’s just best to avoid certain types of sellers entirely.  And the things I choose to avoid might be very different from those that are turn-offs for you.  It all depends on priorities and preferences.  For what it is worth, here is my list of actions that would keep me from buying from a seller:
A.  They operate a chop-shop.  Even if the item I like is not shortened, I won’t buy from someone who does not leave the decision to shorten to the buyer.
B.  They use spammy keywords in titles and tags.  There is no such thing as a “Mod, Rockabilly, Boho, Hippie, Emo, Flapper 1980s Sweater.”  Sellers who do this are saying they know or care nothing about vintage styles; they just want to sell that sweater.
C.  They don’t answer my emails.
D.  They answer emails but are defensive.
E.  They have a one sentence description but a 2000 word essay of rules and conditions the buyer must meet.
Over the past 12 years I’ve bought a lot of beautiful things online, and I’ve bought a few duds as well.  But for the most part I’ve been happy with what I buy because I am careful.  But sometimes temptation has nudged me to purchase something when I had doubts.  That’s when  the package arrives and I see that I should have listened to that little voice that said, “Yes, it looks like a great piece, BUT…”
All the pieces illustrated are from the great Tina Leser, all bought online:
<

Comments:

Posted by Anonymous:

I have benefitted from buying pieces from an uninformed seller. That being said, I love when I am looking for something specific whether vintage clothing or other items, when I can be told the provenance of an item. That helps me to know a little more about the dates as long as the seller is honest. Where and from whom the item was acquired can be helpful. I laughed when you mentioned people asking the price the seller paid–hard to believe but true that it happens! The pix you posted with this informative piece are fabulous. Great advice for us vintofiles!

Thursday, July 8th 2010 @ 8:25 AM

Posted by Mod Betty / Retro Roadmap:

I pick up vintage when I’m thrifting and use it as everydaywear or special occasion wear, depending on the style- thanks so much for the link to the label resource! I have never bought anything online, probably b/c I don’t want to measure myself, but also sometimes things look good in pictures but as soon as you feel the fabric you know it isn’t for you. That being said, you’ve got some great tips here, maybe I will dip my toe into the pool! It sure would give me an easier (albeit more expensive) way to fill my closet with clothes I like!

Friday, July 9th 2010 @ 3:39 PM

Posted by Mod Betty / Retro Roadmap:

Lizzie- your post inspired me to document the tags of some of my summer tops, here’s a link to them on Facebook- thought you might enjoy!

The Lilly
Saturday, July 10th 2010 @ 10:54 AM

Posted by ttft:

thanks for sharing these valuable info!

Saturday, July 10th 2010 @ 11:16 AM

Posted by lizzie:

Mod Betty, I hate to be a “bad” influence, but I can tell by looking at those great labels that you have already been doing a bit of buying!

As for benefitting from an uninformed sell, I did consider mentioning that in my post, but decided to focus in keeping yourself from being taken. But the truth is an experienced eye can get some dandy deals on ebay and other sites. My favorite story involves a “mod 1960s” dress that I felt sure was 1920s. It was – an expertly hand embroidered linen frock with Egyptian inspired motifs! I got it for $10.

Monday, July 12th 2010 @ 7:24 PM

Posted by vintagevixxen:

Hi! Thanks for sharing the link to the label page. I have been buying and wearing vintage for years and once in a while a piece stumps me. Maybe that site can help. Thanks again!

Wednesday, July 14th 2010 @ 9:12 AM

5 Comments

Filed under Designers, Shopping

Does This Make My Butt Look Big?

The February, 1948 issue of Holiday magazine has the best article on the history of the swimsuit.  And I’ve always loved one particular suit, this one by Tina Leser.

“Out of the past come this bustle and full skirt of a modern poplin suit designed by Tina Leser for Warner Brothers star, Alexis Smith.  Because of its fullness and simplicity, it will be more popular on Eastern beaches than on the West Coast.”

I  never expected to actually find this particular suit because I wasn’t sure it was ever put into production,  given the text and the reference to Alexis Smith.  But this one came up on eBay two weeks ago.  It has the Tina Leser for Foreman label:

Another article of the late 1940s in Life magazine refers to the difference between what was popular on Eastern and on Western beaches.  It seems that Eastern bathers were a bit more conservative, and did require a bit more coverage than those on the West coast.  Not everyone, it seems, had the body to carry off the more revealing swimsuits seen in the movies!

Leave a comment

Filed under Summer Sports, Vintage Clothing