New York, Paris and Milan may be known for fashion, but pick up author Valerie Battle Kienzle’s coffee table book, Ready to Wear, and you’ll soon learn St. Louis was quite the mecca for fashion and footwear for several decades.
A self-described history nerd, Valerie takes us back to 1764, when St. Louis was a fur-trading village. Ultimately, with a prime location on the banks of the Mississippi River, the city became a center for fur trading, cotton and wool distribution and then clothing production by the 19th century. "All types of skins and pelts were in demand and popular for buyers to take them back to Europe to sell to the wealthy. In fact, where the Gateway Arch now stands, there used to be 40 blocks of warehouses with many affiliated with the fur industry," Valerie says.
By the 20th century, St. Louis was the fourth largest city in the country and Washington Avenue downtown was known as Shoe Street USA. Valerie explains, "High-end New York buyers flocked to the city twice a year to order dresses and footwear. On Washington Avenue--I've talked to a few people that worked down there at the time who said, literally, you could hear the sound of machines, with crowds of people on the streets and in warehouses, windows were open and it was alive and electric with activity.”
The St. Charles County writer's interest in fashion, and specifically footwear, hits close to home. Valerie's husband, Mike, operates a local factory making safety boots for construction workers. “He’s third generation,” Valerie explains, “with ties going back to International Shoe Company downtown, which is now the City Museum.”
The writer's research also reveals the less glamorous side of bringing these products to market. Long before unions were formed, immigrants coming from Germany and Ireland, including children, were hired to do much of the labor with very low wages and poor working conditions.
Decades after the city established itself as a leader in shoes and clothing, Valerie says she was surprised to learn how St. Louis played a role in the junior dress market from the 1930s to the 1960s, thanks in part to the fashion design department at Washington University and a man named Irving L. Sorger, who worked at the now shuttered Kline’s Department store. “He saw some of the designs these young students had put together and used their patterns. He was just wowed by them.”
Valerie also includes current fashion innovators in this colorful, historical narrative. Readers can order Ready to Wear from the following Saint Louis Fashion Foundation website, with 25% of proceeds donated to the Saint Louis Fashion Fund: StLFashionBook.com.