Project Justification

In the twenty-first century, the American popular imagination paints Texas fashion as big.  Big shoulder pads, teased hair, garish garments.  While the popular 1980s television show “Dallas” might have earned the state this less-than-subtle reputation, the Texas fashion industry has indeed played an outsized role in the worlds of manufacturing, design, modeling, and retailing through the twentieth century.  Centered in the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area, fashion was the fourth largest industry in Texas through much of the 1960s-1980s.  During the second half of the twentieth century, Dallas was also the second largest fashion industry in the US, second only to the much longer established New York City.  And from 1964-2003, the Apparel Mart in Dallas was the largest fashion wholesale market under one roof in the United States, attracting tens of thousands of buyers from around the country and dominating markets in the South and Southwest.

While Dallas’s fashion industry defined much of its economy, it also helped the city develop an outsized cultural importance nationally and internationally. Through strategic marketing initiatives led by Stanley Marcus, in the 1940s national fashion publications like Harper’s Bazaar started advertising designers’ work as available for purchase in New York, Chicago, and finally Dallas.  Regional buyers trusted the Dallas market to anticipate their middle-class consumers’ needs, choosing Dallas over New York or Los Angeles’s more cosmopolitan orientations. Upper class shoppers flocked to specialty shops and luxury department stores for convenient access to international designers’ work, as retailers like Neiman Marcus made unprecedented connections with elite haute couture houses and received special permission to sell licensed garments that would otherwise only be available in Paris, London, Milan, or Tokyo.  Storied individuals - Victor Costa, Michael Faircloth, Kim Dawson - added even more prestige and press coverage to Dallas’s cultural portfolio.  Together, these interconnected factors anchored Dallas as a fashion capital.

Perhaps because of its enormity and multivalent importance, the history of the Dallas fashion industry has boomeranged between these two generalizations: one focused on statistical productivity and another that dives narrowly into the success of individual geniuses in the world of business or high fashion design.  One highlights masses of workers, unnamed individuals whose stories have been broadly cast down in a declension narrative of domestic production moving overseas and the decline of brick-and-mortar retail.  The other shines a spotlight on c-suite level leaders and the few designers whose names became brands, again marginalizing the tens of thousands of industry professionals engaged in designing, sewing, wholesaling, merchandising, modeling, and reporting on the work recognized as belonging to the few.  Focusing on the industry as a series of businesses leaves little room for the labor that created the materiality and meaning that built this industry.

This project offers a series of interviews with members of the Dallas fashion industry whose careers span major cultural and economic shifts, the second half of the twentieth century. Through oral history interviews, narrators will share the varied labor they performed through their roles in the industry, giving specificity and meaning to the broad statistics offered by industry reports.  Their stories will also offer important insights into the meaning-making that happened in the field, the work that connected the visions of recognized industry leaders and the tastemakers and consumers who bought into those visions.  Importantly, the interviews will correct not only the limited narratives currently celebrated in fashion history but also address a lacuna in area archives, which tend to document the “biggest” players but leave unaccounted the ephemerality that has historically shaped the ever-changing fashion landscape