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.
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Currently off-site doing research at the Archives of American Art in Washington, DC, Cranbrook Art Museum’s Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow Shelley Selim has been making her way through the Harry Bertoia papers there. She stumbled upon this delightful tidbit today:

A September, 1942, letter from artist and designer Bertoia to his fiance Brigitta Valentiner captures the awkwardness of eating on Cranbrook’s campus as an instructor at the Academy of Art: “We still go over to the boys’ school to eat. Excellent food is served with an overdose of etiquette which for me is hard to swallow.”

Harry Bertoia, 1942. Richard Askew/Cranbrook Archives.

Harry Bertoia, who began studying at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1937 and was enlisted as the head of the Metalsmithing Department by 1938, might have felt an extra level of discomfort at the dining experience at Cranbrook School—only 24 years old when he began his tenure as an instructor, he likely looked the same age as many of the high school students.

The formality captured in Bertoia’s letter is not overstated, however. Film footage of Cranbrook School in the 1930s shows a formalized dining experience that would be unrecognizable to today’s students, with uniformed maids delivering hot dishes to the young boys who line up at their tables in coats and ties, waiting to sit in unison.  The film is featured in the Center’s current exhibition Cranbrook Goes to the Movies, on view now at Cranbrook Art Museum.

Shelley’s Bertoia research, meanwhile, has proven productive, feeding into an exciting project that Cranbrook Art Museum is cooking up in honor of the 100th anniversary of Harry Bertoia’s birth in 2015. We can’t say more right now, but watch the CAM website as this project develops over the new few months. And, just because we love it, enjoy a photo of Harry Bertoia and Brigitta Valentiner at Cranbrook Academy of Art’s themed “Come as a Song” party in 1942! We featured it as a Photo Friday a while ago, but it is just too good to not post again.

"Come as a Song" party, 1942.  Cranbrook Archives.

“Come as a Song” party; Harry Bertoia and fiance Brigitta Valentiner speak with an unidentified man in a playing card costume, 1942. Cranbrook Archives.

Shoshana Resnikoff, Collections Fellow, and Shelley Selim, Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow, Cranbrook Art Museum

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