Advertising Mary Brooks Picken’s Woman’s Institute: Out Stepped Ann!

“Out Stepped Ann!” This full page ad in Delineator magazine looks like a story. It’s really an advertisement for the Woman’s Institute correspondence course in dressmaking. Delineator, May 1924, page 5.

While randomly reading through vintage magazines, I have collected quite a photo gallery of ads for Mary Brooks Picken’s Woman’s Institute, which was a very successful correspondence course in dressmaking from 1916 through the 1930’s. (It has no relationship to the Women’s Institute, an organization for women that’s been doing important work for a long time.)

As sometimes happens with great stuff you find on the internet, I can no longer locate the first helpful site I found about the Woman’s Institute and its founder, Mary Brooks Picken. But I owe it thanks for mentioning the brilliant ad campaign which contributed to the Institute’s success — which is why I photographed this full page ad when I saw it.

(The instruction books and booklets written by Picken were excellent; I used one many years ago, in graduate school. I learned a lot about making twenties’ dresses from her! In other words, the Woman’s Institute delivered what it promised. A page from her twenties’ book about designing by draping fashions could be a “light bulb” moment for you, too. ) But that “lost” site which mentioned the genius of Picken’s second husband, G. Lynn Sumner, “president of the advertising firm of G. Lynn Sumner Co. of New York” which was probably responsible for the Woman’s Institute ads, was the reason I saved this wonderful example of his story-telling technique. It was a full page ad — an expensive venture — that captures the psychological appeal of the Woman’s Institute courses.

Here is Ann at the climax of the story, stepping out from behind a curtain in the new dress she made herself. Woman’s Institute ad, Delineator, May 1924, p. 5.

Ann’s tale is easy to relate to; she’s a popular girl, but she can’t afford to dress as well as her friends. “If I could only look in the mirror just once and be satisfied with what I see!” [Is there a  woman who can’t relate to that?]

Ann is so embarrassed by her shoddy old “good dress” that she deliberately spills a bottle of perfume on it rather than go to the party.

Determined to come up with something to wear to her best friend’s upcoming birthday party,  Ann ransacks her closet for old dresses that might be remade.

She consults the local dressmaker about remaking a dress, but she’s told that every dressmaker in town is already too busy with other orders. Ann goes window shopping, but can’t afford any of the dresses she sees, so she doesn’t even try them on.

At home, Ann leafs through a fashion magazine.

Ann tells her friends that she’s suffering from “nerves” and under doctors’ orders to stay at home and rest for a month. Her other friends don’t visit her, but Elizabeth tells them that Ann seems happy, especially since she is now getting lots of letters and packages in the mail. And Ann promises not to miss Elizabeth’s birthday celebration.

Ann arrives, wearing a coat and with a scarf covering her hair. She dodges into the cloak room, hidden by the curtains. Then …

Here is Ann, stepping out from behind a curtain in the new dress she made herself. Woman’s Institute ad, Delineator, May 1924, p.5.

“Making Beautiful Clothes” booklet, from an ad for Woman’s Institute, Delineator, Feb. 1924, p. 79.

Doesn’t that make you want to send in your coupon?

Coupon for information and free booklet from Woman’s Institute. Feb., 1924.

Good News: Some of Mary Brooks Picken’s books on 1920’s dressmaking are available as paperback reprints.

The famous “one hour dress” book (1924 edition) by Mary Picken is available as a reprint. Since the styles of 1924 are still long, “tubular twenties,” you might prefer the 1925 edition, which is also available.

You can also download and print your own copy of her 1925 book The Mary Brooks Picken Method of Modern Dressmaking thanks to ///Columbia/// CORRECTION: Cornell University: click here. This is an illustrated sewing basics book which gives an indication of how thorough Picken was.  It is not a “one-hour dress” book. Picken also wrote the Singer Sewing Book in the 1950’s.

The Woman’s Institute had already been around for several years in the Twenties; its ads always emphasized both personal and professional dress making and millinery opportunities for women.

Many of the points made in “Out Stepped Ann!” were repeated in smaller monthly advertisements. Even early ads emphasized financial savings, a chance to learn a skill that could produce income, and a sense of accomplishment. The women in these ads were proud that they had made their own clothes.

“Yes, I Made It All Myself!” students of the Woman’s Institute proudly proclaimed in the ads. Delineator, July 1917.

These ads battled the stigma of wearing clothes that looked “home-made;” and, if a woman followed the instructions carefully, her clothes would in fact look well-made.

“She’s the Best Dressed Woman in Town” because she learned to make clothes and hats by taking a home study course from Woman’s Institute. Other women envy her. Ad from Ladies’ Home Journal, September 1917.

“I’m Making My Own Dresses This Summer,” and clothes for the children, too, brags this satisfied customer. Detail, Woman’s Institute ad from Ladies’ Home Journal, July 1917.

“I Make My Own Hats” says another proud Woman’s Institute student in this ad from Ladies’ Home Journal, November 1917. “I have four becoming, stylish hats where I used to have only one…. You can earn money making hats for your friends in spare time or open a millinery shop of your own. Pictures make everything clear….”

“It’s the prettiest dress I ever had…. And Just Think, Mother, How Much We Saved.” Ad for Woman’s Institute, Delineator, March 1927. [That hat really was chic in 1917.] In addition to saving half the cost of purchased clothing, “You can have clothes that are more becoming and better fitting, because they will be made of the materials and in the styles that you select, and to your own measurements.”

Making your own clothing and turning last year’s dresses into new styles was patriotic, too, during World War I. Click here.

“Now I Save Half on All My Clothes.” From an Ad for Woman’s Institute, Ladies’ Home Journal, December 1917. “You know the patriotic slogan among women this year is ‘Make Your Own Clothes!’

Making “New Clothes From Old” was a patriotic duty during World War I. “This year women are urged to economize, but economy need not mean fewer clothes.” Woman’s Institute ad, Ladies’ Home Journal, Nov. 1917.

“This Year I Had Six Dresses Instead of Two.” Woman’s Institute ad from Delineator, February 1917. “Besides, I’ve made three skirts and half a dozen blouses and practically everything that the children are wearing. And a year ago I couldn’t make a buttonhole.

Aside from the occasional full page ad, Woman’s Institute inserted small advertisements into most women’s magazines every month — sometimes two ads in one issue. What is remarkable to me is that there was a new, different ad every month.

Collecting Woman’s Institute advertisements from the 1920’s and 1930’s will give you a mini-history of the fashions for each year.  I’m saving those for another post — but here’s a preview: (one from 1927, one from 1933)

Detail, Woman’s Institute ad, Delineator, January 1927.

Detail, Woman’s Institute ad, Delineator, March 1933.

Fashions changed a lot in those six years.


Filed under 1900s to 1920s, 1920s, 1920s-1930s, A Costumers' Bookshelf, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, Resources for Costumers, Woman's Institute, World War I

23 responses to “Advertising Mary Brooks Picken’s Woman’s Institute: Out Stepped Ann!

  1. One of my cyber friends made the 1 hour dress after I sent her one of the early 1920s books in that series. It came out much to baggy and did not look flattering. When cut down to blouse length it worked out. Did you make any 1 hour dresses? If so how was the fit and overall look?

    • I think the truth is that many 1920’s fashions were not flattering. I’ve notices that the stars of silent movies from the Twenties often have fitted bodices — possible when you have a studio costumer to sew you in…. Also, dresses from the early Twenties assumed that a woman was shaped like a tube — with nothing sticking out in front and nothing sticking out in back, which was only possible by wearing a 1920’s corset. I haven’t made a one-hour dress — and I know one would look awful on me!

      • “I haven’t made a one-hour dress — and I know one would look awful on me!” Have a couple of MBP’s reprints and agree with you! del

      • Thank you so very much for sharing your experiences! I think the modern chemise style is much more flattering because it is not the very wide rectangle on which the 1 Hour Dress is based. Whether I am draping or drafting a chemise it has the possibility for some adaptability by means of using a belt. One of my favorite chemise dresses is the one from The Vogue Book of Better Sewing published in 1953. I enjoy your blog very much and appreciate all the scans you share with readers.

      • Thanks — I wore the body-skimming styles of the 1960’s with great pleasure — just a few seams or darts can really help!

  2. Sign me up! But not for the Halloween witch hat costume. I really thought that was what it was until I kept reading!

  3. I love these ads as well, and the promise of magic transformation. But I have my doubts that she could have learned to sew all of those dresses in a month, or that a dress made in an hour would be all that great looking. (But five hours wouldn’t be bad!)

    • I’ve seen other (unenthusiastic) comments about one-hour dresses online. As with patterns that promise a “one hour jacket” or a “one hour skirt,” I’m skeptical that you can prep your fabric properly, lay it out, cut it, and sew and finish it in an hour — not to mention making the pattern from measurements! I’ve drafted (or draped) a lot of patterns and sewn professionally. I notice that there wasn’t a one-hour dress book for the more complex dresses of 1927-28-29. But you could make this 1924 dress in silk — without the embroidery, in an hour; it’s basically a long pillowslip with holes for head and arms. The 1924 dresses on the right and left of this image look do-able in less than five hours — assuming you start with a commercial pattern. Would they look as good as the drawings? I doubt it.

    • P.S. “Ann” actually worked on her dresses for about five weeks (allowing for a few days for her packages from Woman’s Institute to arrive.) And she apparently hid in her house doing nothing else all that time.

  4. Have been interested in MBP since reading & then purchasing Barackman’s book. (I’d learnt a relative helped put her son through college in the ’30’s by sewing & wonder if this was how she’d learnt).
    Discovered “The Secrets of Distinctive Dress” at Harvard ($4i) and mention several from Cornell’s HEARTH project on my blog (
    Looking forward to your second post on this!

    • Mary Brooks Picken herself was widowed at the age of 25. Kimberley Chaffee has statistics about how many women used sewing skills learned from Woman’s Institute courses to supplement their income or support their families. In the Sixties I had several lovely dresses made for me by a WW II widow who supported herself and her daughter by dressmaking. (She was a close friend of my aunt. I didn’t understand why my aunt insisted on having dresses made for me, until I realized that was her way of channeling money to her friend without the exchange of cash affecting their relationship as equals.)

    • Thank you for those links. Many of Picken’s books and pamphlets can be found online. Yellow Zepplin has links to some others.

  5. Debra C Wilkinson

    I believe this citation needs to be correct to Cornell University, rather than Columbia:
    You can also download and print your own copy of her 1925 book The Mary Brooks Picken Method of Modern Dressmaking thanks to Columbia University: click here. This is an illustrated sewing basics book which gives an indication of how thorough Picken was. It is not a “one-hour dress” book. Picken also wrote the Singer Sewing Book in the 1950’s.

  6. Pingback: The Great Depression Reflected in Ads from the Back of Women’s Magazines | witness2fashion

  7. Eu Sei

    That’s the time when women were not ashamed of being women–or being called Miss or Mrs.!

  8. Gretchen G Warren

    This is the first time I have seen the advertising for the Woman’s Institute. Mary Brooks Picken Sumner was my great aunt. It is always exciting to discover more information about her.

    • How kind of you to write! Your Great Aunt was an extraordinary woman, establishing a business that clearly filled a need. As I mentioned, I have used one of her 1920s’ dressmaking booklets and it worked — clearly written, good illustrations, and enlightening in that “light bulb over the head” way. Also impressive is her assumption that other women would like to start their own businesses. This ad mentions “the joy of being independent in a successful business.” I respect her for delivering excellent home courses (not empty promises) and for her positive, “you can do this” attitude. She must have been a naturally gifted teacher as well as an excellent dressmaker. Whether she or her husband wrote those long, story-telling ads, they capture the way many women feel about their clothing and their budget. And it took courage to commit to buying full-page ads, and running a different ad each month in so many magazines. Click here for a link to a story-like testimonial/ad from 1921.

  9. Black Tulip

    Thanks for a fascinating article. The whole tone of the Woman’s Institute publicity is a world away from some postwar ads which suggest that making your own clothes should be kept a very guilty secret!

  10. Gretchen Warren

    It is so interesting to see this. Mary Brooks Pickens Sumner was my great aunt and G Lynn Sumner my great uncle. I knew he was very creative in advertising but had not seen this information.

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