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Book Review: When Women Ran Fifth Avenue

Jacket design by Emily Mahon
Photograph owned by Trunk Archive

For many women, to say where they used to shop for clothes would mean identifying themselves by age. In the early decades of the 20th century, small family stores and company catalogs provided what women wanted, while the wealthy and fashion-conscious had their own private, European couturiers. Then in mid-century, high-end mid-Manhattan department stores emerged, among them Bonwit Teller, Lord & Taylor and Henri Bendel — all closed now. Today, online and mall outlets are the norm, but what a time it was when those elegant giants offered distinctive clothing in distinctive settings, and transformed fashion and the related marketing industry. And at the helms of three of those illustrious companies were women, inexperienced when they started, but creative, visionary, ambitious and effective. That time, and its lasting influence on the economy and culture of this country, is the theme of journalist Julie Satow’s highly readable new book: When Women Ran Fifth Avenue: “Glamour and Power at the Dawn of American Fashion."

In short chapters that break off at cliff-hanging moments, and with candid-looking black-and-white photos, Satow presents the stories of three “overlooked” strong, complex women who led the change at these carriage-trade emporiums — Hortense Odlum (1881-1970) of Bonwit Teller, Dorothy Shaver (1893-1959) of Lord & Taylor and Geraldine Stutz (1924-2005) of Bendel. Satow also manages to slip in fascinating facts about Black women entrepreneurs and tidbits, such as the origin of the star apostrophe in Macy’s logo — it was based on a tattoo on founder Rowland Macy’s hand.

The transformation these women wrought was both inside and out. They reconfigured floor space and created eye-catching displays. They were women who appreciated art and they got artists to assist them. Odlum hired the notorious surrealist Salvador Dali for window displays, Shaver created those iconic script pen-and-ink-wash ads for Lord & Taylor and Stutz worked with Andy Warhol on illustrations.

Under their guidance, the stores attracted wealthy investors and clients, and Midtown Fifth Avenue became a concentration of chic, taste-changing, cutting-edge go-to-meeting places, with hair salons, art galleries, restaurants, tea rooms and select boutique areas. Men’s haberdashery was included, but the women decided what to offer and how. They were the shoppers, the models, the salespeople and the prospective careerists in merchandising, public relations, design and accounting. The stores thrived until they didn’t. They were unable to compete against the more numerous and ever-popular downtown stores — Macy’s, Gimbels, Filenes — run by men — who would start undercutting them with discounts, bargain basement lures, phony imitations from Europe, huge parking lots, night and Sunday hours, and soon, hip boutiques for the young. And then came the internet.

As Satow shows, Odlum, Shaver and Stutz were not cut from the same cloth, nor where they influential at the same time, but they each experienced pain on their way up the business ladder — suffering conflicts between the personal and the professional — and, as the board and budget reports showed, for all their success, lower pay than men. Still, they paved the way for the American Look in fashion and fashion magazines. Shaver even spearheaded new uniforms for nurses on the front in World War II.

Satow does note that obstacles for women high up in the workforce remain, but she feels that her own daughter will have an easier time of it, in part because of the pioneering women featured here.

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.