‘Ready To Wear’ Explores St. Louis Fashion — From Early Fur Trade, To Shoe Empires, To Invention Of Juniors
Valerie Battle Kienzle has researched and written all sorts of things over the course of her career, penning newspaper articles, corporate communications and books.
But at heart, the Weldon Spring, Missouri, resident admits, she’s “a history nerd.”
“Anything that’s history, I will go down a rabbit hole,” Kienzle told St. Louis on the Air. “My mind has questions, and I like to find answers to questions.”
It was after moving to the St. Louis region several decades ago that she started having questions about one particular part of Gateway City history: its significant role in the world of fashion. That’s the focus of her book “Ready to Wear: A History of the Footwear and Garment Industries in St. Louis,” recently released by Reedy Press.
The fact that Kienzle’s husband is himself a third-generation distributor of occupational footwear is part of what led her to the subject in the first place. His great-grandfather worked for a shoe company that is now City Museum downtown along Washington Avenue — once a bustling stretch of footwear and garment commerce known as Shoe Street USA. And now Kienzle’s son and son-in-law are both in the footwear business as well.
On Tuesday’s show, Kienzle joined host Sarah Fenske to discuss what she found most fascinating while researching her new book. The colorful, 214-page hardback volume took about five years to complete and is filled with old illustrations and advertisements as well as written history.
Kienzle’s narrative highlights the pivotal role of the fur trade in St. Louis’ early days in a key spot along the Mississippi River.
“From a transportation standpoint and as the railroads came into being in the 1800s, St. Louis sat basically in the middle of the country, so it was a great place to be,” the author explained. “Lots of supply — furs from out west — and that led to leather production, shoe production. There was cotton, there was wool, and that contributed to the garment industry.”
While the fur trade in St. Louis had declined by the latter half of the 20th century, Kienzle noted that “there is a secret place” where locals and visitors alike can still catch a glimpse of it: inside the Drury Plaza Hotel at 4th and Market streets.
“If you go inside the lobby, that was once [the] International Fur Exchange Building. And it's really pretty, very stunning,” she said. “And unfortunately, a lot of the old warehouses and fur places were part of the land clearance that came about when the Gateway Arch was in the planning stages. Most of those no longer exist.”
But St. Louis’ fashion legacy extends far beyond fur, and Kienzle’s book also traces the shoe industry, which until the 1870s was primarily centered in Boston, before George Warren Brown, who had connections both on the East Coast and in St. Louis, shook up the scene.
“He thought, ‘Hmm, the river’s here, there’s all this fur, there’s materials, there’s resources — why can we not have production here in the Midwest in a central location?’” Kienzle said. “So he is really responsible for bringing that production to St. Louis and making it grow, for what it became.”
At one time, the city boasted the headquarters of 21 shoe and boot companies. In the case of the Brown Shoe Co., a serendipitous connection at the 1904 World’s Fair would lead to one of the company’s great successes: Buster Brown shoes.
“There was a cartoonist named Richard Outcault, and he did a Sunday cartoon [character] called Buster Brown and his dog Tige,” Kienzle explained. “George Warren Brown approached him and said he would like to license the use of this image, this product. Mr. Brown also had a small factory at the — I think it was the building of manufacturers there at the World's Fair. So they reached an agreement, and Buster Brown became associated with this new line of children's shoes.”
That agreement led to a traveling show that for decades brought the Buster and Tige cartoon characters to life as a way to market the shoes.
“He was a petite individual — he was not a child, but in costume, he looked like a child,” Kienzle explained. ”He and a dog that they named Tige went on a train trip around the country to promote the shoes. They became very popular [and] were treated like celebrities wherever they went.”
On the apparel end of things, St. Louis can claim to be the place where the juniors market was invented in the first half of the 20th century. Kienzle said Washington University’s fine arts students have a lot to do with that.
Some of the students’ costume and clothing designs captured the attention of Irving Sorger, a merchandising manager for one of the local department stores at the time
“He saw some of these drawings by some of the Wash U students, and he was just wowed by them,” Kienzle said. “Up until that time, there was no distinction: If you were a young woman, a teen, or if you were [in your] 50s, 60s, 70s, clothing was basically the same.
“And let's just say maybe younger women got tired of looking frumpy? And so Mr. Sorger saw these styles ... had some markups made, and they sold instantly. And he knew he was onto something, to the extent that, at one time, people from New York and from California came here twice a year to see what the latest junior clothing styles were going to be for the next season.”
Kienzle’s book is available at various local bookstores as well as the book’s website, where 25% of proceeds from the book go to support local emerging designers, as well as fashion education and outreach through the St. Louis Fashion Fund.
The author has several local book events coming up, including a virtual St. Louis County Library presentation at 7 p.m. June 10 and another with St. Louis Public Library at 1 p.m. June 19, as well as book signings at local bookstores.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.