"From Paris to Providence"
Summary by Dawn Katz
From the perspective and interest of American history inclusive of tailoring, retail, business, textiles, and dress, the presentation given by Susan Hay mesmerized me. Susan Hay, Curator of Costume and Textiles at the Rhode Island School of Design, Museum of Art, spoke in detail about the Tirocchi exhibit, "From Paris to Providence," currently on display at RISD. She focused on the lives of the Tirocchi's, the contents of their historic mansion and business, the fashion of the 1920s and 1930s, and the influences of those eras. The Tirocchi project can also be found on-line.
The Tirocchi exhibit is comprised of garments donated to RISD from the historic mansion at 514 Broadway in Providence.
From 1914 to 1947, the mansion housed A & L Tirocchi, a dressmaking proprietorship owned by Italian immigrant sisters, Anna and Laura Tirocchi. In 1989 RISD had the unique opportunity to procure any and all items from the historic shop and in doing so, they spent a year inventorying every item in the shop, creating a substantial educational archive. The collection includes garments, fabrics, accessories, machinery, newspaper clippings, photographs, letters from clients, and bookkeeping records.
Ms. Hay provided the history of the Tirocchi sisters (most documented, some suspected) from their lives in Europe through their years in Providence. The sisters apprenticed to a dressmaker for Queen Margarita of Italy before coming to America between 1907 and 1909. They apprenticed to Rose Carrier, an Irish dressmaker in Providence with a wealthy clientele. By 1911, they established their own shop in an area frequented by wealthy (potential) clientele before moving it to the mansion on Broadway. The sisters often traveled to Paris to source fabric and apparel, keeping an air of European fashion for their famous and wealthy Providence clientele.
The process of having a dress made by the sisters in the mansion began in the Billiard Room. This was the showroom where the client looked through fabrics and publications for their desired dress. Moving into the fitting room, the customer was measured in great detail which was then noted in the records Anna and Laura kept. During the first fitting, the client wore a silk lining (made on a dress form of her size), while Anna draped the desired fabric and trims over her to design the dress.
The Tirocchi business included repairs, alterations, and makeovers (a process by which clients returned with their older dresses to have them updated). By 1920, with changing fashions including the start of widely available ready-to-wear in the simple styling of the 20s, the Tirocchi sisters had to revamp the workings of their shop. This included stocking high-end RTW fashions and “robes” (pre-designed, ready to cut clothing). At this time, the primary custom-made garments offered by the Tirocchi’s were wedding dresses, while most of the day wear was RTW in order to be competitive with area fashion establishments.
Ms. Hay noted the ability to place the fabrics and garments found in chronological order, not only through silhouette and design, but also by fabric patterns mirroring art of the era. Abstractionism, cubism, collage techniques, modernism, the Ballet Russes, and industry were all strong influences apparent in textiles discovered in the mansion.The Tirocchi presentation was a wonderful illustration of the past, inimitably preserved since 1947 (by Laura when Anna died). It exemplified an important lesson: research, remember, and understand the past before moving into the future.