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:
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.)
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.
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:
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