Dressing Up History

Article excerpt

Fashioning a Business in Rhode Island

When Anna and Laura Tirocchi opened their doors to start a dressmaking business in 1915, they were moving against an economic tide. Manufacturers had begun to offer American women off-the-rack garments that were fashionable and well made, and the market for custom-made clothes was steadily dwindling.

Somehow, the Tirocchi sisters not only survived but thrived. The story of their success through two world wars and a global economic depression is told in an exhibition opening in January at the Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence.

Their ability to build a clientele among Providence's wealthy is remarkable to Susan Anderson Hay, curator of costume and textiles at the museum. She speculates about the obstacles the sisters must have encountered arriving as immigrants in America in 1907-the language barrier and lack of family, friends, or other contacts.

"That they were also able to remain fashion arbiters for such a clientele for more than thirty-five years is a tribute to their ability to choose materials of the highest artistic quality, their good taste, their hard work and persistence, and their ability to build bridges across great social divides,' she says.

More than five thousand artifacts, including client books, ledgers, daybooks, and check registers, have been saved. The articles had been left for decades in the Victorian house in Providence that served as the dress shop until 1947. Textiles and garments were there, along with sewing machines, imported linens, and early twentieth-century lace, both handand machine-made.

"Until recently, the study of fashion has largely remained the province of costume historians," Hay explains. "It wasn't taken seriously, largely because it was considered feminine and frivolous. But fashion, far from being a feminine province apart from the 'real world; directly reflects the culture of its time."

Hay and her colleagues at the museum first explored the connections between clothing and history in an exhibition of eighteenthand nineteenth-century fashion called "Dress, Art and Society." Now the museum plans to carry this idea forward into the twentieth century with the items from the Tirocchi archives.

"From the very rich context of this dressmaking shop, we learn how immigrant women-the middle-class owners and the lower-class work force-used their ability to produce and distribute fashion to make real contributions to the community; how women of varying social status incorporated fashion into their lives; and how the work of making fashion influenced the lives of both the owners and the workers," Hay says.

The Tirocchi sisters were born in the village of Buarcino, Italy, and according to family lore, studied dressmaking in Rome. The story of the Tirocchi family's arrival in America is pieced together from personal papers, including correspondence with family members in Italy and oral histories. The Tirocchis came to America in a wave of migration financed in part by earlier Italian immigrants who worked as laborers in Providence and laid railroad tracks in northern New England and Canada.

John W. Briggs, an associate professor of education and history at Syracuse University and a consultant for the Tirocchi exhibition, says that in many ways the Tirocchi story reflects that of other Italian immigrants. Anna Tirocchi, however, "represents an exception to the common experience for women and for immigrants in general" in Briggs's view. "She remained single, independent, and the proprietor of a business that put her in intimate contact with upper- and upper-middle-class Americans," he says.

Anna Tirocchi was the principal designer in the shop. She and her sister Laura catered to the wives and daughters of newly successful industrialists from Providence and nearby Fall River, Massachusetts, such as Harriet Sprague Watson Lewis, the wife of a shoe manufacturer. …