Barbara Bush’s recent stay in the 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.
Aka the shmate business or rag trade of days gone by, the garment center was a bustling, noisy, Manhattan neighborhood between 5th and 9th Avenues from 34th to 42nd street, when metal wheels of rolling dress racks clattered along the cement sidewalks, the dresses merrily 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, 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, when Barbara Bush, campaigning for her husband George in 1988, was photographed on the pages of Look 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, his 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 told that Mrs. Bush bought the dress in Washington’s Lord & Taylor 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. And my father, Max Weingarten, though he was not credited in print as its designer, was known throughout the industry as its creator.
It still makes me proud.
Alterations, stories by Rita Plush
This post originally appeared on Boomer Cafe <http://www.boomercafe.com/2014/01/24/rita-plush-proudly-recalls-father-new-yorks-garment-district/>