The Fashions of Ruth Adler Schnee

Sometimes it seems there are infinite possible discoveries within a single archives collection. Such is the case with the Edward and Ruth Adler Schnee Papers. Just over a year ago I wrote about the Schnees’ long-running Detroit retail business, Adler/Schnee, but I knew then that story was only the tip of the iceberg.  

And so I was happy to find myself returning recently to one of my favorite collections in the Archives. Replacing materials that had been on loan to the Cranbrook Art Museum for their exhibit, Ruth Adler Schnee: Modern Designs for Living, I was once again struck by her achievements as a high school student at Cass Technical High School in Detroit from 1940-1942. In particular, her skill at fashion design. Maybe it was the months of hearing about sweatpants and Zoom shirts, but it was so refreshing to spend a few moments remembering what real fashion means. 

Ruth Adler Schnee illustration, circa 1941. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Before Ruth Adler Schnee made a name for herself in interior design, including her iconic textile designs, she was interested in becoming a fashion designer. Attending Cass Tech afforded Ruth the opportunity to nurture her natural artistic talents, which are clearly evident in drawings from her primary school days. And, she had already shown an affinity for fashion design—out of necessity, Ruth had already been designing her own clothes since she was a 13-year-old Jewish girl in Nazi Germany (her family emigrated in 1939).

Amongst other documents in her collection, the story of Ruth’s high school years and her passion for fashion are perhaps best captured in three notebooks. One of my favorite boxes in the collection holds nothing but pages from a notebook entitled Dress Design VI. Labeled “hours 1-4″ it is clearly a class project, and one for which Ruth received high marks. Divided into four parts (Machine Attachments, Illustrative Material, Drafting Problems, and Analysis of Dresses), the book includes drawings, pattern pieces (not to scale), paper mockups of mainly women’s sportswear designs, samples of sewing technique (actual fabric pinned to the page), textile identification pages (with real fabric samples), and an essay on silk. 

Sleeve Form page, in “Notes on the Draping of Garments,” Ruth Adler Schnee, circa 1942. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

A second notebook, Notes on the Draping of Garments, Ruth Adler, Cass Tech High –Detroit-Mich, is a close examination of the different components of women’s garments. Complete with measurement studies, fabric mockups, and detailed notes, the analyses are a veritable tour of various aspects of 1940s women’s fashion. 

A third notebook, unidentified and wrapped in plain brown paper, contains more fashion illustrations and fabric studies, but also includes figure and anatomy studies. Quite possibly the result of Ruth’s Beaux Arts coursework at Wayne State University (simultaneous with her high school studies), this book of illustrations contains solely pencil drawings.  

While the study of sewing patterns and fabrics was common for high school girls of that era, the dress design curriculum track at Cass Tech was more akin to art than homemaking. Seniors could graduate in Home Economics I & II (all girls in 1942!), but Dress Design was considered separate. It is clear from school transcripts that Ruth did not take any traditional home economics classes. She did take art, drawing, handcrafts, costume design, and of course, dress design.  In an oral history interview conducted by her daughter in 2002 for the Archives of American Art, Ruth recalls, “I had really hoped I would get a scholarship to one of the New York fashion schools. My dream was to be accepted at Pratt.” 

Page 19 of the Cass Technical High School yearbook, “Triangle,” January 1942. Ruth is pictured bottom row, left. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Instead, Ruth earned a full scholarship to the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, where she intended to join their Costume Design Program (now Apparel Design). But, as she recalls in a 1997 Cranbrook oral history, “I found that the department was part of the home economics department and I was not really happy about that. So I switched to interior design.” Ruth graduated in 1945, and on a fellowship, came to Cranbrook Academy of Art , where she graduated a year later from the Design Department. And the rest, as they say, is history. 

As an interior designer, Ruth Adler Schnee would go on to win many awards and work with  prominent U.S. architects like Eero Saarinen, Louis Redstone, Buckminster Fuller, and her life-long friend, Minoru Yamasaki (featured in an upcoming Center lecture). As a Cranbrook Academy of Art graduate, Ruth is also included in Cranbrook Art Museum’s landmark exhibition and publication, With Eyes Opened: Cranbrook Academy of Art Since 1932, on view June 19 – October 10, 2021.  For more information on With Eyes Opened, please visit the Cranbrook Art Museum’s website

Deborah Rice, Head Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

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