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.
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 …
Doesn’t that make you want to send in your coupon?
Good News: Some of Mary Brooks Picken’s books on 1920’s dressmaking are available as paperback reprints.
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.
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.Making your own clothing and turning last year’s dresses into new styles was patriotic, too, during World War I. Click here.
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)
Fashions changed a lot in those six years.