The Dressmaker’s Library: Young Originals – Emily Wilkens and the Teen Sophisticate, Part 1

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Review of Young Originals Emily Wilkens and the Teen Sophisticate
by Rebecca Jumper Matheson. 
Published by Texas Tech University Press, 2015.

Fashion did not focus on the needs of girls in the late stages of their ‘tween years and early teenage years in the first 40 years of the 20th century.  Girls in this age group were considered little ladies in waiting.  The needs of their developing figures were not catered to in any way by designers and manufacturers.  Clothing for this demographic was cut slightly larger and sold in the children’s department.  The concept of a young consumer with specific needs and developing preferences was not treated seriously until a designer named Emily Wilkens went to California to work as a designer for child star Ann Todd.

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Early 1960s sketch by Erica Perl Merkling depicting Wilken’s ideal teenage girl.  A healthy body weight was the basis of good health, an integral part of Wilken’s concept of beauty.

As her reputation for catering to the needs and preferences of child and early teenage stars grew, Emily became more and more aware of the special needs of the teenage girl.  Keeping in mind her own younger sister Barbara, Emily began to envision the ideal weight, shape, appearance and figure flattering clothes necessary to help a ‘tween and young teenage girl develop a sense of style that anticipated her blossoming into young womanhood with charm and grace.

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Emily Wilkens Young Originals dress from 1944.  Each design was patented to prevent piracy.

In 1941 Emily Wilkens was back in New York.  This time as a costume designer for the Broadway play Junior Miss.  She designed the costumes under the auspices of Best Department Store so her name does not appear in the credits.  Nonetheless, the teenage characters in the play were attired in such a way to show their transition towards becoming stylish teenagers.  This was achieved by dressing the teenage actresses in somewhat sloppy looking sweaters and skirts at the start of the play.  Later, the girls wear pretty blouses and neat jumpers.  The jumpers and blouses were the forerunners of Emily’s own line where the emphasis was on perfect fit and figure flattering details meant to accommodate the changes in a girl’s figure.

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The model in this photo is Tee Matthews.  She wears an Emily Wilkens Young Originals summer dress.  Tee was very popular model with GIs during WWII because she embodied what we now call the “girl next door” look.  Advertisements where Tee modeled shorts and swimwear were cut out and used as pin-ups by the soldiers.  Tee’s appeal exemplified Wilkens belief that shiny hair, a clear complexion, exercise, diet and a positive outlook were much more important than drop dead glamour for a girl to be attractive.

Emily entered into a partnership with a clothing manufacturer that enabled her to design under her own name.  By the age of 26 she was on her way to winning awards for her contributions to the growing teen fashion market.  Some of her preferred construction details used to create a flattering silhouette for the growing teenage girl were:  double or triple French darts on the bodice, smocking across the abdomen or chest; and intricate trimming or embroidery on the skirt of the dress.

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Emily used details from 19th century fashions to add a special touch to her teen sophisticate dresses.  The dress worn by the teenage model was inspired by a late 19th century children’s dress trimmed with lace inset with ribbon.

Emily’s peak designing years saw her receive greater recognition in the press and the fashion industry.  Yet when she got married in 1947 social pressures caused her to end her career.  She became the wife of Irving Levey, a New York State Supreme Court judge and soon the mother of a boy and girl.  Emily returned to fashion in the 1950s but her styles were geared towards the older teen ready to go to college.  Emily was known to appear and disappear from the fashion scene throughout the decade.  She remained active when possible by designing for pattern companies.  These projects kept her name and influence going.

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This model embodies the healthy, natural look Emily considered the basis for success in cultivating and expressing one’s style and presence.

In the 1960s Emily taught a workshop at New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology.  By the end of the decade she changed her focus and remained relevant throughout the late 1980s.  Emily taught women through speaking engagements, radio appearances, and the books she wrote.  She distilled the essence of her experience at health and beauty spas into programs anyone could adapt for personal use at home.  In this way Emily reached a wide audience at a time when the mainstream American culture began to appreciate the relationship between diet, exercise, and skin care as integral parts of cultivating one’s attractiveness.  Emily was diagnosed with dementia and entered a home in the 1990s.  She passed away in 2000.

Thanks to Emily Wilkens the modern teenager, as well as the woman with a youthful figure who can wear a junior size, have access to flattering clothes in sizes geared to their body proportions.  It isn’t necessary for teens to shop in the children’s department nor for a junior size woman to buy a Misses size and have it altered.  On a personal note, I am so grateful for Wilkens and her contemporaries for breaking this ground.  As a mature woman who can still wear junior sized 7 clothing I have to say that they fit me so much better than a Misses size 6.  I’m sure others with the same figure type will recognize something of themselves in the sketches and models who embodied the look Wilkens promoted.

Note:  The purpose of a two part book review consists of using part 1 to introduce Emily Wilkens to my blog readers and subscribers.  In part 2 I will use a Q&A format to review the book and explain why I think it is a valuable addition to a dressmaker’s library.






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