In Memoriam: Jessica McClintock

Simplicity sold this Gunne Sax outfit by Jessica in 1982.

This private obituary for designer Jessica McClintock appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday, March 14, 2021. The Chronicle’s official coverage of her career as a fashion designer based in San Francisco can be read here.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos of her dresses, but I can testify to her influence. In the 1970s, when I was teaching high school, her dresses were very popular. They were Romantic, in the sense of looking to the past for inspiration. Some had high, “Victorian” collars, “1890s” sleeves that were full and puffy from shoulder to elbow and tightly fitted from elbow to wrist, long, ruffled skirts and a great deal of lace and ribbon trim. This McClintock-inspired Simplicity pattern from 1974 gives you an idea:

McCall pattern 4249, dated 1974, shows the raised waist, long ruffled skirt, and elaborate trimmed sleeves characteristic of Jessica McClintock’s 1970s designs.

The Washington Post described her design influences well:

A reporter for the Wall Street Journal described her party dresses as “steeped in the imagery of Victorian romance and virginal sex.” People magazine in 1984 described one of her lines as “Gatsbyesque.” A paid death notice published in the San Francisco Chronicle depicted an early collection as aspiring to an “Edwardian and Renaissance look.”

“I have a romantic feeling about life,” Ms. McClintock, who boasted that she used more lace than any other designer in America, once told an interviewer. “I like Merchant-Ivory movies and candlelight and beautiful rooms. I like the patina of age.”

It’s hard to realize that was nearly 50 years ago, but the difference in how young women wanted to be seen then is striking to me. Grannie dresses or Prairie dresses were not overtly sexual. They were for young women who wanted to look pretty. There was probably an influence from the very successful 1968 Romeo and Juliet directed by Franco Zefferelli. (Some Gunne Sax dresses had real or fake lace-up bodices or sleeves.)

Plenty of applied trim meant that this look was not cheap to manufacture.

Back view of McCall 4249, from 1974.

In 2021, dress manufacturers save money by eliminating all non-essentials, such as pockets and applied trims. The fewer pattern pieces, the fewer seams, the less exacting the fit, the cheaper to mass-produce. Obviously, the Jessica McClintock look wasn’t cheap to make. Often, these dresses had a sheer poly-cotton top layer and were fully lined.

Costumers in the San Francisco Bay Area were lucky that McClintock was located (and manufactured)** in the US. The Gunne Sax factory warehouse on Townsend Street sold bolt ends of fabric (including changeable taffetas and lace and other evening/wedding dress fabrics) at really low prices.

McClintock used shiny rayon lace in the 1980s; some of these appliques are still in my crafts bin.

Even better, when you were doing a period show, were the bolt ends of lavish lace trims, bins of beading and appliques, artificial flowers, ribbons, and beautiful buttons and “jewel” trim, which usually had a Turn of the Century or Twenties’ influence. I was inspired by a lace and pearl encrusted dress worn by Bessie Smith when working on a musical  about Josephine Baker:

A character from the 1920s with one from the 1960s. I was lucky to work with Della Reese.

Rayon lace was wonderfully dye-able. The metallic lace probably came from the McClintock factory store, too.

The only trouble with the factory warehouse remnants store was that there were too many temptations to buy things that were too “special” to pass on — when would I see a beaded headband in perfect 1920s style and colors again? I’d buy them with my own money and keep them until I finally had a chance to use them in a show. When I was shopping for a show set in 1885, I might spend my own money on something that would be perfect — eventually — when I did 1770s or 1920s productions. I just tried to keep track of what I paid for them, and usually they did get billed to a show … eventually.

For collectors, The Vintage Fashion Guild shows an array of Gunne Sax, Jessica McClintock, and Scott McClintock labels.

** “Two decades ago, a Mission District garment shop that sewed her clothes was found to have violated labor standards and was liable for unpaid wages. She and others paid $120,000 to settle the case.” — SF Chronicle


Filed under 1960s-1970s, Tricks of the Costumer's Trade

11 responses to “In Memoriam: Jessica McClintock

  1. Gunne Sax was never my look, I was really too old for it by 1970. I’ve always thought of those prairie dresses as for women under 25. They were amazingly well made, especially compared to the fast fashion clothes today.
    bonnie in provence

  2. I remember wearing prairie dresses as a child in the 1970’s. Those costumes in this post are just gorgeous! This post reminds me about how many pieces of fabric and trim too “special” to pass on I have stored away.

  3. anna

    The short-sleeved granny dresses were comfortable, the leg-of-mutton sleeves were not! I remember not being able to bend your elbow without danger of cutting off circulation to your wrist! And it pinched!
    You’re right about modern clothes, suddenly women’s wear has no pockets! I don’t always want to carry a handbag every where I go, but that matters not to the industry. At the same time, men’s clothes at least here in Europe have larger than usual pockets to accommodate their smart phones!

  4. Trish S

    Thanks for this. It was very interesting. I had never heard of Jessica McLintoch or her take on the Victorian fashion revival in the 70s. It was fascinating and I’ve now done a bit more digging to look at her 70s styles. In the UK it was all Laura Ashley fashion which was similar though much baggier and with very heavy cotton In the same way as you buying off-cuts of Gunne Saxe fabric etc, we could buy Laura Ashley cottons, made and printed in the factory in Wales. Many people of my generation had at least one Laura Ashley dress, and we used Laura Ashley fabrics to make our patchwork quilts which was a very popular pastime in the 70s. Of course, we also made our own dresses in the fabric although sometimes the colour fastness or the fading left a lot to be desired. It was lovely to see the ‘little house on the prairie” inspired patterns too.

  5. I was in high school during Jessica McClintock’s heyday in the 1970s and I loved these dresses. People make fun of 1970s fashion now, often justifiably, but one thing I appreciate about that era now is that, as you point out, fashionable was not synonymous with sexualized. I bought a year’s worth of Seventeen magazines from 1974 a while back for a writing project I never ended up doing, and I was struck by how the aesthetic–in shampoo ads, etc.–was centered on being alone in (often fantastical) natural settings. It was all about the girl herself, not the audience.

  6. SaunBalsters

    I recently costumed The Sound of Music. We had a Gunne Sax dress in our stock in perfect condition that I put on Liesl for her party/wedding dress.

  7. Sandy Balsters
    I’m not sure if the link works. Liesl is the tall girl. I was thrilled that the dress fit her!!

  8. I too loved the Gunne Sax dresses in junior high and high school. I still clearly remember admiring them in the store. McCalls patterns had an ‘Annie Too’ line, with a style I’m sure was intended to rival the Gunne Sax designs. Thanks for the tribute to Jessica McClintock and for sharing the sad news of her death.

  9. I remember the prairie dresses but on actual barefooted hippies in Harvard Square, Cambridge Massachusetts in the late 1960s. I don’t think I had one but her very covered up look on top migrated to the micro mini dress patterns because when I was 19 or 20 so 1974 or 1975 I made one which had the barrel sleeves with the puffed out sleeves and a very feminine sash. Very mini on the bottom but very covered up on top. Thanks for the Jessica McClintock tribute and thanks for the memories!

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