When the Brooklyn Museum transferred its costume collection to the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute in January 2009, the Met acquired an impressive array of garments from renowned European and American designers. Some highlights from the collection were featured in the related 2010 exhibitions American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity at the Met and American High Style: Fashioning a National Collection at the Brooklyn Museum. Yet the collection also contains a set of objects with noteworthy local origins: garments and accessories made by Brooklyn-based clothing and accessory makers—milliners, tailors, and dressmakers—working independently or in department stores during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The makers, identified by garment labels, were for the most part working in and around Fulton Street in downtown Brooklyn, then the borough's main shopping district. The objects they produced do not simply reflect the fashions of the time; rather, they offer an important window into this period of Brooklyn history.
This comparative survey focuses on two independent Brooklyn dressmakers: Herbert Luey and Alice Bergen Coady. Active from the 1880s to about 1918, they competed not only against one another but against Brooklyn department stores and their dressmaking workrooms. Luey's and Coady's clients included the middle- and upper-middle-class wives and daughters of affluent Brooklyn businessmen. For these women, being well dressed was a reflection of their position in a burgeoning Brooklyn society.
Before discussing the dressmakers themselves, it is important to look briefly at Brooklyn in the nineteenth century, which was a time of significant growth and transformation for the borough. The establishment of regular ferry service between Brooklyn and Manhattan in 1814 made travel and transportation on the East River a profitable prospect. In turn, the farmland comprising the riverfront area known as Brooklyn Heights was transformed by the construction of homes for prosperous businessmen commuting to Manhattan and other well-to-do Brooklynites. As the century progressed, farmland surrounding the Heights was transformed to accommodate new homes and businesses.
By 1880, Brooklyn was an independent city with a population of more than half a million people. A physical link to Manhattan would not exist until the 1883 completion of the Brooklyn Bridge, and an administrative link would not exist until the consolidation of the five boroughs into a single New York City on January 1, 1898. This distinctly Brooklyn society had the means and desire to support Brooklyn-based arts, entertainment, and business, and those who could afford to patronize such industries preferred to do so in style.
Women's Clothing (1880–1915)
The fashionable silhouettes of the 1880s through the first decade of the twentieth century included voluminous skirts and tightly fitted bodices; they relied on careful fitting to achieve an attractive appearance. The two examples below, an afternoon dress and evening dress, are by the influential Parisian couturier House of Worth.
The production of women's clothing at the time had not advanced much further than a general standardization of sizes. While the advent of the sewing machine in the 1830s was certainly a boon to the industry, only garments that did not require a close fit, such as capes, cloaks, and undergarments, could be mass produced. Women who sought fashionable gowns needed either to make their own clothes or to turn to a skilled dressmaker informed about the latest fashions coming out of Paris.
Paris at this time was considered the hub of European and American fashion due in large part to the English dressmaker Charles Frederick Worth, who founded the House of Worth in Paris in 1858 with his business partner, Otto Boberg. One of Worth's lasting legacies is his success as a man in what had traditionally been a woman's field. Nineteenth-century standards of decency dictated that only women should make clothing for women due to the intimacy involved in fitting a garment to a client. As Wendy Gamber writes in The Female Economy, a study of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century milliners and dressmakers, "the demands of Victorian propriety banished men from the fitting rooms."1
By the 1880s, Worth had split from Boberg and was creating influential styles disseminated abroad via fashion plates and exported gowns. Independent dressmakers and department stores in Europe and America both copied and reinterpreted these fashionable designs. Today, Worth's name is synonymous with the establishment of haute couture—the art of creating exquisite, custom-made garments that feature luxurious textiles, elaborate trimming, and skillful hand sewing.
Herbert Luey (1860–1916)
When independent dressmaker Herbert Luey opened his business in Brooklyn in the 1880s, Worth had already paved the way for male dressmakers. Yet Brooklyn women were still not entirely convinced that patronizing a male dressmaker was appropriate. Luey, aware of the challenge he faced, assured Brooklyn women in the 1886 advertisement shown below that "to have your suits made by a man dressmaker is accounted the correct thing."
Like Worth, Luey was well aware of the value of self-promotion. The label below, from 1908–10, simply reads, "H. Luey." Dating from the end of his career, it reflects the importance he felt his name had garnered over time. Although Luey worked on a much smaller scale than Worth, a Luey gown was "Worth" written Brooklyn-style, as this label attests.
Herbert Mortimer Luey was born in 1860 in Northfield, Massachusetts, as the fourth child and only son of Ira and Mary Luey. Little is known about his early life and nothing about his training or why he became a dressmaker. We first read of Luey in the following April 15, 1886, advertisement for his business at 17 Elm Place, which was one of many brownstone buildings lining the east side of the street. On the west side of the street, the Grand Opera House and Zipp's Casino, popular entertainment venues, added to the traffic on the block.
Luey chose his location well. Elm Place, just one block long, was capped by Livingston Street at its south end and Fulton Street at its north. Fulton Street was not only the heart of Brooklyn's shopping district by the 1880s. It was also on the route of the elevated train line—the Fulton-Elm stop would be completed toward the end of the decade. Among the many shops on Fulton Street were those selling dress goods such as fabric and trimmings. At a time when clients brought their chosen materials to dressmakers, this location was nearly ideal. The only shadow on the horizon was the impending completion of Frederick Loeser's new department store on the same block.
The department store was a retail innovation in the nineteenth century. An offshoot of the dry goods store, which sold items such as underwear, fabric, hosiery, and handkerchiefs, the department store offered a wide range of goods and services on a grand scale. Loeser's, founded in 1860 as a ribbon and embroidery trimmings shop, had grown large enough to commission the construction of a five-story building at 484 Fulton Street, which was to fill an entire block. The new building, completed in 1887, included a dress-goods section and dressmaking workroom. Stores like Loeser's—and its nearest competitor, Abraham & Straus—had a huge advantage over independent dressmakers. Their greater financial resources and sizeable store space allowed them to employ dozens of people in their workrooms, which let them produce custom clothing quickly. They were also able to establish offices in Europe, which afforded them more immediate access to French fashion and fabrics—an advantage that dressmakers like Luey could not enjoy.
As the opening of Loeser's department store drew nearer, Luey continued to bank on his own abilities. Looking again at the April 1886 ad in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle above, we see that Luey offered "New York dressmaking at Brooklyn prices" along with the assurance that every suit would be "cut and fitted by Mr. Herbert Luey." The claim suggests that he recognized the power of a branded reputation. Luey also employed a variety of marketing tactics to build his business. He ran sales, offered special-occasion garments with matching accessories, and at one point even offered the reassuring presence of a Frenchwoman. In the face of giants such as Loeser's, Luey touted prices that were two-thirds lower than his Goliath competitors.
The cream silk bengaline and organza wedding gown below, donated by Polly Dix, has a 17 Elm Place label. Research suggests that it was probably worn by Polly's mother Estelle Hathaway Utley, the daughter of banker William Utley. Estelle married Robert Martin Dix on October 23, 1889. The popularity of the white wedding dress is said to have originated several decades earlier, when Queen Victoria wore white to her 1840 wedding.
The exemplary beige silk-crepe evening dress below has net insertions and machine-made lace and was a gift to the Brooklyn Museum from Mrs. James Dowd Lester. Made by Luey around 1890, it was probably worn by Mrs. Lester's mother, Sarah Maria Wyckoff Streeter. According to the Wyckoff Museum, the presence of the Wyckoff family in Brooklyn dates back to the 1630s.
In the 1890s, Luey began importing textiles, which allowed him to provide clients with raw dress materials in addition to his dressmaking services. This was a service that Worth and the Brooklyn department stores had been providing for a long time. In 1891, Loeser's purchased 125 feet of frontage on Elm Place for a new annex. Number 17—Luey's shop—was among the buildings slated to be demolished. Fortunately, it was at about this time that Luey purchased a brownstone at 202 Washington Park, across the street from Fort Greene Park.
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle advertisement below, which informs women that they can now purchase a "Luey gown made to order," shows Luey's growing confidence in the quality of his workmanship and his reputation. At this time, Luey also advertised in the high-society weekly, Brooklyn Life, sailed to Europe—where he could take in the latest styles and select textiles to import—and promoted his own creation: the Luey bicycling costume. The Costume Institute's collection does not contain a Luey bicycling costume, but I mention it in this survey because it reflects an important development in Luey's career.
The popularity of bicycling in the 1890s prompted the question of what constituted appropriate female attire for the activity. Luey's answer was a loose-fitting coat, bodice, leggings, and what appeared to be an ankle-length, full skirt. The key to the outfit was the skirt's construction: the skirt was actually split into two wide legs with a modesty panel in the front. The back view, shown in the illustrated Brooklyn Life advertisement above, reveals the advantage of that bifurcated construction. Luey patented his design and marketed the skirt aggressively throughout the 1890s, defending it against copycats. The "imitation is the sincerest flattery" advertisement below makes his point clear.
Luey also expanded his business during the 1890s, opening a Manhattan branch at 303 Fifth Avenue. He also continued to court higher-end clients by advertising in the weekly society publication Brooklyn Life, which featured his designs. An illustration of a reception gown, shown below, appeared in the 1897 fashion issue, and a photograph of an "afternoon costume" appeared in the 1912 fashion issue. The dress in the photograph bears some similarities to French designer Paul Poiret's lampshade-like dress designs of the time (see an example).
Amelia Beard Hollenback gifted the evening dress below, which Luey made for her between 1912 and 1914, to the Brooklyn Museum in 1966. The gown's elongated lines reflect an increasingly tubular silhouette, which became even slimmer by the late 1910s. Hollenback, the daughter of prominent industrialist John Welles Hollenback, was a resident of the affluent neighborhood of Clinton Hill. She was a repeat customer of Luey's; the Brooklyn collection contains three other known examples of Hollenback's Luey dresses.
In the third and final decade of Luey's career, his advertisements became notably brief. The 1914 Brooklyn Life advertisement below reflects a designer sure of his status; he no longer needed to convince women to patronize a male dressmaker or detail the services he could provide. Luey continued to advertise his dressmaking business until his death in 1916.
Alice Bergen Coady (1850?–1918)
In many ways, Alice Bergen Coady's career stands in marked contrast to Herbert Luey's. Although Coady's active dates—1880 to 1918—align with Luey's, her goals did not. She fits the more traditional profile of nineteenth-century dressmakers: the self-supporting woman.
Coady was born in Ireland about 1850 and came to the United States at about age ten. Her father, Patrick Bergen, was a Brooklyn contractor, so Coady likely got her dressmaking skills in Brooklyn—the exact location is the subject of ongoing research. Her motivation for going into business is clear: by November 22, 1880, when the advertisement below appeared in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Alice Coady was a thirty-year-old widow with a nine-year-old boy and nine-month-old infant.
Coady relocated her business several times throughout her career. We first find her in downtown Brooklyn, on the second floor of 366 Jay Street. By the time the 1885 advertisement below appeared in the Eagle, she had moved to a second-floor space above the T. A. and L. F. Newman dry goods store at 305 Fulton Street. About five years later, in 1890, Coady moved to 23 Elm Place, just three doors down from Herbert Luey.
Coady and Luey were neighbors as well as competitors. Did they know each other? It is tempting to imagine Mr. and Mrs. Luey walking out of number 17 just as Mrs. Coady, sons Robert and Thomas in tow, was leaving number 23. Perhaps the dressmakers scrutinized each other's work as they nodded hello.
The dress above is the only example of Coady's work in the Metropolitan's collection. A 1967 gift from Mary Pensa, it is the wedding dress made for her mother, Luigia Castruccio, on the occasion of her marriage to Enrico Pensa on January 19, 1893. The Castruccios were an Italian immigrant family who worked in pasta manufacturing and food importing. Unlike Luey's patrons from Brooklyn Heights and Clinton Hill, Luigia Castruccio lived in what is now Red Hook, specifically at 66 Sackett Street near the Brooklyn waterfront.
We do not know whether Luigia was one of Coady's regular clients. We do know, however, that she bought the material for her wedding dress at Loeser's and then took it around the corner to Coady to be made into a dress. The dress is made of gray silk bengaline—probably not what comes to mind when we envision a wedding dress today. As we saw in Luey's work, white wedding dresses were definitely in fashion. However, some women declined—or were unable to justify the expense of—a dress they would wear only once. Instead, they marked the occasion with a high-quality dress they could wear again.
This wedding dress was a more conservative rendition of the contemporary fashion; the bell-shaped skirt is full, but the sleeves are only moderately puffed. It has a restrained cut and color that render it an appropriate and stylish "good" dress for future wear.
By 1895, Coady had moved to 213 Cumberland Street. She and Luey were once again neighbors, this time less than a block apart in Fort Greene. Coady was at this location until the early 1900s. While there, she, like Luey, began to offer fabric as well as imported dresses. Coady also made regular trips to Europe, which allowed her to stay up-to-date with French fashion. She took full advantage of this exposure to la mode, on one occasion to her detriment: in 1892, Coady had a trunk full of Parisian dresses seized by New York customs officials even though she assured them they were for her own use. Coady also used her time abroad to travel, sometimes accompanied by female friends. In 1900, her sons joined her on a trip to Europe that culminated in a visit to the 1900 Paris Exposition.
By 1910, Coady had moved seven blocks east to 306 Washington Avenue, at DeKalb Avenue, where she continued to work as a dressmaker for private clients. Her old space at 213 Cumberland Street became the site of another dressmaking business. Anna Broderick, a longtime dressmaker who had traveled with Coady to Europe in 1902, set up her shop there.
Coady died on April 24, 1918, at age 68, after a short illness. No information has been found about her work between 1910 and 1918, and her obituary does not mention that she was the head of a dressmaking business for more than thirty years. Like Luey, she produced wedding gowns, riding habits, mourning wear, and street suits, and she imported and probably copied French gowns. But unlike Luey, with his drive to make a name for himself, Coady poured her ambition into supporting and educating her children. Her younger son, Thomas, graduated from Fordham University in 1900 and went on to become a lawyer. Her elder son, Robert, studied in Paris and at the Art Students League in Manhattan and pursued an interest in American art. He coedited the short-lived art and literary journal, The Soil, and opened a series of galleries, one in Brooklyn—at 11 Elm Place—and two in Manhattan—the Washington Square Gallery and 480 Fifth Avenue. Coady exhibited work by such artists as Pablo Picasso, Henri Rousseau, and Juan Gris, and he promoted African art.2 Through the lives of her children, and through the presence of her work in The Costume Institute's collection, Alice Coady's legacy has extended far beyond her Brooklyn roots.
The End of an Era
The increasingly simple lines of women's clothing, improved manufacturing techniques, and an enlarged work force due to recent waves of immigration all contributed to the mass production of clothing at the beginning of the twentieth century. More and better goods were available at all price levels, and the heyday of the independent dressmaker was nearing its end. Yet before that transformation, Herbert Luey and Alice Bergen Coady had each carved out a dressmaking career lasting more than thirty years.
Luey had faced unique challenges as a man in a predominantly female business. Although designer Charles Frederick Worth had broken down the barriers for male dressmakers in France, Brooklyn women needed further convincing. Luey reassured them and proceeded to build a Worth-like reputation with his Luey gowns and patented bicycling outfit. Widowed dressmaker Alice Coady combined a long professional career with one as a mother. She fit the traditional role of the self-supporting female dressmaker, and the lives of her children reflected her drive to sustain a lifelong business.
The garments created by these two Brooklyn dressmakers were not executed on the scale of those from the House of Worth, but they are notable as handsome American interpretations of fashionable costume of the time. They were garments made in Brooklyn for Brooklynites and, as such, they reflect Brooklyn society and history. Luey's and Coady's work is well described by this excerpt from an essay that appeared in the premiere issue of Robert Coady's journal The Soil. Written by an author identified only by the initials F.M., the piece is titled "Dressmaking." It reads:
A well-made gown is a work of art. It is sculpture carried to a high degree. It is decoration in the truest sense. It is the ornamentation of the female form. … Dressmaking is a direct expression of life, and a true one, because it responds to an everyday demand. ... It performs a function which cannot be performed in any other way.3
Presentation by P. Grace Hernandez at the 2010 symposium Costume Collections: A Collaborative Model for Museums: Learning from Labels
Thanks to Marcie Karp, Hannah Kinney, and Erica Lohe of the Met's Education Department; the staff of The Costume Institute; those Met fellows who offered their comments on an earlier version of this presentation; and those friends and colleagues who have followed the development of this research.
 Wendy Gamber, The Female Economy: The Millinery and Dressmaking Trades, 1860–1930 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 30.
 Judith Zilczer, "'The World's New Art Center': Modern Art Exhibitions in New York City, 1913–1918," Archives of American Art Journal, Vol. 14, No. 3 (1974), 2–7. (http://www.jstor.org/stable/1556944)