BoomerCafé serves many purposes for many people, and one of those is to be a place for memories. And sometimes, someone else’s memories can spark a few in you. That’s how we feel about this story from author Rita Plush of Queens, New York, whose own memory of a highlight from her childhood was sparked by — of all things — the recent hospitalization of a former First Lady.
Barbara Bush’s recent stay in a Houston hospital brought back memories of “The Barbara Bush Dress,” and the seventy-five plus years my father spent working in the garment center. From stretching, cutting, grading, pattern-making, and designing, my father knew more about a dress than a dress knew.
A.K.A. the shmate business, or rag trade, of days gone by, the garment center was a bustling, noisy, lower Manhattan neighborhood between 5th and 9th Avenues, when metal wheels beneath rolling dress racks clattered along the cement sidewalks, the dresses swinging from their poles, their minders shouting in Spanish. The trim and belt and button sellers, the zipper and shoulder pad purveyors — “notions,” they were called — their shops set cheek-to-jowl along the streets.
And in one of the lofts, or “The Place” as we called it, was my father, Max Weingarten, taking a bodice from one dress, a sleeve from another, sketching and pricing, hoping for the next “hot number” that would “check out” of the stores. Perhaps adapting, or in the vernacular, “knocking off” an up-market garment he had seen in “Better Dresses” in Macy’s on Herald Square, into one of the more moderate-priced dresses his company manufactured.
And always, he had tales to tell of the garments that sold beyond expectations, but also of zippers that refused to zip, of skirts that had been cut an inch too short because a cutter hadn’t laid out the pattern efficiently. But no sold-out dress order or faulty zipper, no skirt above the knees, caused the excitement, both at our house in Queens or in the showroom on 34th Street, that Barbara Bush did when, campaigning for her husband George in 1988, she was photographed on the pages of Life magazine in a V-neck, short-sleeved dress with a pleated skirt, of my father’s design. Barbara Bush, who could afford any designer from James Galanos to Bill Blass to Adolfo, chose instead a Max Weingarten.
The talk of Seventh Avenue, the dress caused a sensation in the industry. Bold announcements decked the entrance to the Damon Dress company’s showroom. Scott Biller, Dad’s boss, copied the picture of Mrs. Bush in her Damon outfit and turned it into a life-size poster, which included the missive, “Everyone tells me in my Damon dress I look like a size 2. I can afford the best and I buy Damon.”
Women’s Wear Daily — the bible of the garment industry — headed up an article (November 22, 1988), “Damon Hopes to Win with Bush” in which they reported that Mrs. Bush bought the dress in Washington’s Lord & Taylor department store and wore it several times during her husband’s bid for President.
Damon produced 14 versions of the polyester and rayon/jacquard two-piece in an array of colors and prints that sold, sold, and sold some more. And my father, Max Weingarten, though he was not credited in print as its designer, was known throughout the industry as its creator.
I’m still proud today.