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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Loja Saarinen: Lady of Fashion

If this were an article for Harper’s Bazaar it would be an imagined interview between a reporter and Loja Saarinen, but since my status is beneath lowly, I won’t presume. Loja Saarinen is a fascinating person in many respects: she was professionally a sculptor, photographer, textile designer, maker of architectural models, landscape designer, teacher, weaver, entrepreneur, designer in general, without mentioning the unquantifiable but no less important aspects of her life. Married to architect Eliel Saarinen and mother of two extraordinarily gifted children, she must have been party to some incredible family discussions on style, architecture, design of practically everything, including fashion.

Daughter Pipsan Saarinen Swanson briefly led a fashion course at Cranbrook Academy Art, and she and her mother made many of their own clothes.  Even though the ready-made clothing industry was growing, women in the 1930s and beyond who had sewing skills but not necessarily the money for special garments would make their own. Commercial patterns abounded: Vogue, Butterick, Simplicity, McCall, among others not all of which survive today.

Here is a Vogue pattern from the times:

Vogue Dress for Lynettes blog

Courtesy of Etsy.com

Remember this look.

Considering Loja Saarinen’s formal training in sculpture in Paris and her own textile designs, not to mention her model-building skills and creativity, one must assume she was ideally set up for making her own special clothes. They would be unique. What could be better?  And then there was the wonder of downtown Detroit’s J. L. Hudson’s vast floor of fabrics.

Hudsons detroit fabric shop

Fabric Department at J. L. Hudson Company Department Store, 1920s. H.W. Brooks, Commercial Photographer. Courtesy of the Detroit Historical Society.

Of course, the essence of fashion is being appropriately dressed. Working from the informal to the more formal attire, one may examine a few photographs of Loja Saarinen as samples of her impeccable taste and ingenuity.

Here is Loja on a relaxed afternoon standing with husband Eliel Saarinen in the 1930s:

Eliel and Loja Saarinen at Cranbrook copy neg CEC493 copyright Cranbrook Archives

Eliel and Loja Saarinen. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

This looks like a take on a peasant dress with its loose sleeves and wide flat fell seams and flared, lightly gathered skirt. What says hand-made to me is the embroidered belt.  While it is possible Loja bought the dress and altered it to fit sleeve length and hem, I think this would have been easy enough to whip up. It is casual, comfortable and different enough to mark her as a person with an eye for good design who is not going to be dressed like anyone else.

Here is a dress in tasteful black which looks a lot like the above Vogue pattern:

Loja Saarinen in Saarinen House Dining Room c 1940 copy neg CEC490 Courtesy Cranbrook Archives

Loja Saarinen in her dining room, c. 1940. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

The sleeves are a bit longer. Note the Chemex coffeemaker as accessory.

Next is a design so Loja-esque, given the proliferation of triangles all over the campus in every medium you can think of, including in her own contributions, this fabric and the garment have to be Loja Saarinen designs.

I am not sure what the pale fabric is, obviously soft and drapey, but the design could be embroidered or appliqued ribbon. (Family boost: she’s sitting in one of the Eero-designed auditorium chairs.)

Loja Saarinen c 1934 Copyright Cranbrook Archives

Loja Saarinen, c. 1934. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

This is one of the best examples of Loja’s sense of style, though probably not her own work. She is warm, stylish and utterly without fuss. Attention PETA, this is before the days of reasonable-looking faux fur. The coat is a thick wool with light-colored top-stitching down the sleeves and front bodice panels.

Eliel and Loja Saarinen at the rear of Saarinen House copy neg CEC491 Copyright Cranbrook Archives

Eliel and Loja Saarinen. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

Dress-up clothes, we have them: a lovely photograph of a younger L. S. Swirls of fabric and triangle earrings.

Portrait of Loja Saarinen by Max Habrecht 1932 copyright Cranbrook Archives

Portrait of Loja Saarinen, 1932. Max Habrecht, photographer. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

This looks like a dress with swaths of color in the bodice such as you might see in her rug design. This could be silk satin, or what was called “art silk.” It looks bias-cut, which would make for a good fit, but which is unforgiving for the seamstress. You can’t see her hair very well, but it appears fashionably cropped.

In the following Crandemonium photograph Loja’s attire looks like a variation on a theme.  I suspect this is a top she made for the occasion, worn over a separate skirt.  Eliel Saarinen’s jacket has matching color stripes. The Saarinen column hats make the outfit for both party-goers. Loja’s dress has a train as befits the queen of Crandemonium. The orb of office for King Eliel is a grapefruit.

Loja and Eliel Saarinen at Crandemonium Ball Feb 1934 Copyright Cranbrook Archives

Loja and Eliel Saarinen at the Crandemonium Ball, Feb. 1934. Richard G. Askew, photographer. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

At last a color photograph. This may be the same top with a matching skirt, and quite a few years later, but now we see the Saarinen choice of color (Family boost: another Eero chair.)

Loja Saarinen in Vaughn Road home c 1962 Courtesy Cranbrook Archives

Loja Saarinen in her Vaughn Road home, c. 1962. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Loja Saarinen was not a self-promoter. Her work speaks for itself. Her hand is in so many aspects of design all over the Cranbrook campus. This is just a glimpse at a few (fashion) design choices Mrs. Saarinen made about herself. She told Virginia Christ-Janer in a 1964 interview, “With our family [art is] a disease.” More than that, the Saarinens were all so capable, why would they not keep designing? Just like Karl Lagerfeld, to design is to breathe.

For a last word on anything to do with fashion, from all-time humorist Mark Twain: “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”

–Lynette Mayman, Collections Interpreter

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