This is a success story about a girl who couldn’t sew, had no money but turned an idea into an international phenomenon in the 1940s. It is also a story of connections from simple conversations.
Having moved to Mexico years ago, I learned how the rich and famous have long been attracted to Mexico and Cuernavaca in particular. Having never met anyone who did not have a great story to tell, I have always enjoyed striking up conversations with total strangers and asking them about their lives.
In early 2012, I had the opportunity to spend a week traveling by car through western Mexico with a group of friends. We were going to Palenque to scatter the ashes of our friend, Anthony O’Neill “Tony” Miller. Tony was a retired reporter and foreign correspondent for the Associated Press., who died November 23, 2011, of prostate cancer at his home in Cuernavaca, Mexico. It was Tony’s wish to have his ashes scattered at Palenque.
Included in the group was Juli Lynne Charlot, a resident of Tepzotlan, Mexico. Juli Lynne was the creator of the Circle Skirt. A fashion that quickly became known as the Poodle Skirt due to the decoration of appliqued poodles. Connection One and Two – we are neighbors and had a mutual friendship with Tony in common.
Remarkably, while I was an art student in the mid-1960s, our professor had us study the design and marketing of the Poodle Skirt – Connection Three.
When I heard that Juli Lynne would be accompanying our group on the trip, I wondered if it could be the same person. A little advanced research found that it was indeed the same woman. My excitement in meeting Juli Lynne grew. Upon meeting her, I was surprised to find that for a woman of 90 years old, Juli Lynne had little trouble keeping up with the others in the group. She was an absolute delight!
During the trip and later, as I visited Juli Lynne’s home in Tepzotlan, Mexico, I listened to stories of the remarkable life of Juli Lynne. We spent many hours sitting on the terrace in her garden, enjoying her famous Watermelon Margaritas. I sat and listened as I was drawn back in time.
At one point, as she was telling the story of how she sang in the 1946 movie Night in Paradise when she mentioned George Michael Dolenz. Dolenz was the father of George Michael “Mickey” Dolenz Jr., the American actor, musician, television director, radio personality, and theater director, best known as a vocalist and drummer of the 1960s pop/rock band the Monkees.
While I have never met Mickey Dolenz, his fellow bandmate was Robert Michael Nesmith. He is the son of Bette Nesmith Graham (1924 – 1980). I met Bette when I was an 11-year old avid reader, and I often skipped school to visit a used bookstore in downtown Dallas, Texas. Bette was a secretary at Texas Bank and Trust and had stopped into the book store on her lunch break. She admonished me for not being in school. She admitted that she admired my interest in books rather than skipping school to play with friends – Connection Four. Bette would go on to invent Liquid Paper.
While I never met Bette Graham’s son, Michael Nesmith, he and I attended Thomas Jefferson High School in Dallas – Connection Five. Michael is the father of my friend Christian Nesmith and his partner Circe Link, who I have long enjoyed and own their complete collection of CDs. Connections Six and Seven.
I have always been amazed at the number of connections we might have with another person once we engage in conversation with them. The world is indeed smaller than we might think.
After having met and befriended Juli Lynne, I knew I had to write about her. Eventually, I put up a page on Juli Lynne at Wikipedia, where I am an editor. The page pretty much duplicates the story presented here.
Juli Lynne Charlot
Juli Lynne Charlot (born October 26, 1922) is an American singer, actress, and clothing designer. She is the creator of the Poodle Skirt.
She was born Shirley Ann Agin on October 26, 1922, in the Bronx, New York, USA. Juli Lynne was blessed with a beautiful voice and begin her singing career at an early age.
She moved to Los Angeles as a young girl and quickly found success as a singer, followed by acting. It was here that she took the stage name 0f Juli Lynne.
She sang with Xavier Cugat’s orchestra, and this led to more jobs from meetings with the many friends and followers of Cugat.
She eventually was offered and accepted a part as a soprano with the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera Company.
Before long, she found herself in the company of the Marx Brothers. Groucho Marx asked Juli Lynne to play a straight “man” in their Marx Brothers act while performing at military bases during WWII.
The attractive young woman found herself caught up in a whirlwind of offers from a great variety of acts. Soon she began traveling the world in the company of some of the greatest names in show business at the time.
Juli Lynne appeared in the 1945 Broadway Revival of Victor Herbert’s The Red Mill. Her co-stars were Michael O’Shea, Eddie Foy Jr., Ann Andre, Eddie Dew, and Charles Collins. The Red Mill is an operetta written by Victor Herbert. It premiered first on Broadway on September 24, 1906, at the Knickerbocker Theatre and ran for 274 performances. It was revived on October 16, 1945, opening at the Ziegfeld Theatre and running for 531 performances. The show also had a London run and toured extensively.
Her performance led to casting as a singer in the 1946 movie Night in Paradise, written by George S. Hellman, Emmet Lavery, and Earnest Pascal. The movie, produced by Universal Studios, starred the beautiful Anglo-Indian star Merle Oberon, Gale Sondergaard, Turhan Bey, Thomas Gomez, Jerome Cowan, George Michael Dolenz, John Litel, and many others.
For Night in Paradise, Juli Lynne performed the title song in a lovely festive palace sequence in the film.
The Clothing Designer
As a performer, Juli Lynne had strong ideas about how she wanted to look. She designed her stage wardrobe even though she could not sew. She hired a professional dressmaker to bring her designs to life.
Juli Lynne met and married Philip Charlot as the war came to a close and thus became Juli Lynne Charlot. She gave up performing to be a post-war wife. In 1947 two seemingly unrelated events came together to start her career in fashion. First, fashion styles changed dramatically with the New Look. WWII fabric restrictions lifted, hemlines dropped, and skirts got full.
About the same time, Philip Charlot lost his job. Juli Lynne was a young woman who wanted to be in fashion, but she had no money for the new styles. In 1947, at the tender age of 25, Juli Lynne was invited to a holiday party in Los Angles and wanted to create a dress, especially for the event. Not having money, Juli Lynne decided to make her skirt for the Christmas party. In a United Press article of February 25, 1953, Juli Lynne stated, “If I had known how to sew, or had the money to purchase better materials, I would have never made the circle skirt.”
Fortunately, Juli Lynne’s mother owned a factory that used felt, and thus, she had free access to the material. She states that “I cut the circle out of felt, which allowed me to cut a full circle skirt without having any seams. I added some whimsical Christmas motif appliqués. The result was so attractive that she received many compliments at the party.
A week later, in need of money, Juli Lynne decided to duplicate the effort by making two more circle skirts took them to a Beverly Hills boutique just before Christmas 1947. The owner was excited and quickly put them on the floor, where they sold immediately. The store owner called her to place another order, and thus Juli Lynne Charlot California began. There was significant demand for the whimsical felt designs, and life seemed rosy for a while.
The Poodle Skirt
After Christmas, the Los Angeles boutique requested a non-holiday design.
It was fashionable for women to be accompanied by dogs on leashes, and Juli Lynne decided to make a dog-themed Poodle Skirt. As always, her designs told a story, and the dog design was no different. Juli Lynne came up with the idea of three dachshunds: two females and a male. The first dog was a flirty female, the second was a female with her nose stuck in the air, and the third was the male trying to get to the flirty female. But all the leashes became intertwined, so the male dog could only get to the stuck-up female.
Within a short time, the president of Bullocks Wilshire called Juli Lynne. He had seen the dog skirts, and he wanted her to do dresses for Bullocks. Not only that, he gave her the windows on Wilshire Boulevard to decorate with six original designs of her skirts.
Before long, Juli Lynne had orders from all over the country. Stanley Marcus at Neiman Marcus in Texas and Andrew Goodman at Bergdorf Goodman were early clients for the poodle skirts. Soon, Juli Lynne had a clothing factory and 50 employees. Juli Lynne tells the story of how she began:
“I saved up a little money and opened a factory to make the felt circle skirts with a variety of designs other than the Christmas motif, and then boom. I was in a mess. I couldn’t do arithmetic, and my mother had to hock her diamond ring three weeks in a row to help me meet payroll.”
Soon, Juli Lynne had a clothing factory and 50 employees. She decided it was time to learn to sew and so she started design school. Juli Lynne was so busy that there was no time for the classes. She quit and hired her sewing teacher. She learned how to sew on the job from this teacher-turned employee.
A New York dress manufacturer dropped in one day to find the then-26-year-old Juli Lynne in tears and the business almost submerged by bills. His firm decided to invest some money in the factory. “That was a blessing,” Juli Lynne said, “it allowed me to hire a secretary who was much better at math than I was at the time.”
By 1953, the business was well on its way to great success. The dresses were being sold in 100’s of stores nationwide. The line continued with felt dresses in the winter and added poplin dresses in the summer months. Huge roses, yellow daffodils, and water lilies, complete with a discreet frog and various whimsical story patterns, were made of felt and appliquéd to the felt skirts.
Juli Lynne’s creations were more than clothing – they told a story – and became conversation starters. She made sure that the stores buying her clothes knew the stories behind the skirts to say to the customers.
Poodle Skirts were fun to wear and fun to dance in. All the girls widely wore them at that time. The skirt was so successful that she continued making other similar skirts with embroidered and appliquéd designs. The Poodle Skirt was a big hit with the teenage crowd during the 1950s. And the fashion style has now become a symbol of that era.
Poodle Skirts are made from wool felt cut in the shape of a big circle. A hole was cut in the center, and a waistband secured it to the waist. Many of these skirts carried an appliqué of a poodle, along with other scenes and embroidery work.
A Poodle Skirt is a wide swing felt skirt of a solid bright, bold color (often pink and powder blue) displaying a design appliquéd or transferred to the fabric. The design was often a coiffed French poodle. Later substitutes for the poodle patch included flamingos, flowers, and hot rod cars. Hemlines were to the knee or just below it.
The skirt quickly became very popular at sock hops (school dances) and as everyday wear. The dress was easy and fun for people to make at home. The design was simple, and the materials readily available. Movie stars commonly wore this skirt, and it featured widely in magazines and advertising. Many were eager to keep up with Hollywood’s fashions, adding to its popularity.
Today, when we think of 1950s clothing, the image that most often pops into our mind is the Poodle Skirt. Most vintage collectors know Charlot as the designer of some of the very best and most clever circle skirts to come out of the 1950s.
The Poodle Skirt remains one of the most memorable symbols of 1950s Americana, worn as a novelty retro item, part of a nostalgic outfit. A similar design of these skirts became popular today.
Juli Lynne Charlot Designs were so successful that one of them appeared in a national ad campaign for Maidenform bras in 1952.
Part of Maidenform’s famous & iconic “I Dreamed…” ad campaign, this 1952 ad shows a Juli Lynne Charlot racehorse themed circle skirt on a model who has dreamed she was at the races. One of the original Juli Lynne Charlot Horse Racing Circle Skirts sold a few years ago for $665 by AntiqueDress.com.
Juli Lynne made matching bustiers, stoles, boleros, halter tops, and sweaters to go with her skirts, with hats and handbags decorated to match the clothes.
The factory also did custom work, as it did for Madeleine Haskell, magician’s assistant. In 1952, Leading Designer Patterns, a mail-order pattern company, released her designs.
Move to Mexico
Although she is best known for her fabulous full skirts, Juli Lynne has had other clothing enterprises. Her final design venture started with a trip to Mexico in 1980. She was inspired by the culture there to expand her line of apparel. She added more color and styles into the line, and sales once again begin to grow.
In Mexico, Juli Lynne was particularly impressed with the classic Mexican wedding dress. She decided to do up-dated variations on this dress, bought a manufacturing plant in Mexico City to produce them, and began exporting the dresses worldwide.
Everything was going well until the Mexico City Earthquake of 1985. The earthquake struck in the early morning of September 19 at 07:17:50 (CST) with a moment magnitude of 8.0. The event caused severe damage to the Greater Mexico City area and the deaths of at least 5,000 people. Juli Lynne’s factory collapsed. Thankfully it was early in the morning before her employees had arrived to work.
While in Mexico, Juli Lynne fell in love with the country and, in particular, the small colonial town of Tepoztlan, just outside of Cuernavaca. She immediately knew that she would one day buy a house and move there. With the collapse of her factory in Mexico, Juli Lynne decided to retire in Mexico and purchased the home of her dreams in Tepoztlan, where she continues to live today.
The photo to the right shows the detail of Juli Lynne’s sweaters with its applique and three-dimensional felt rose. It is an excellent example of the work produced by Juli Lynne in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
A search of the Internet will show many of the original designs by Juli Lynne. Pieces such as this have been lovingly cared for and bring top prices at auctions. It is surprising that vast numbers of items are available and how well preserved they are, showing how people value the work of Juli Lynne.
Today Juli Lynne remains spry despite turning 96 in October and often bursts into song with a beautiful soprano voice that is still strong. She regales visitors with her wonderful stories of the movies, and the Broadway plays she has appeared in, her adventures singing on stages worldwide, and the many exciting people she has befriended through the years.
In November 2008, Juli Lynne had a one-woman show entitled “In Retrospect” in Cuernavaca, Mexico. So many expressed an interest in the Juli Lynne clothing that spanned more than 50 years in the fashion world. In early 2009, the Izcalli Boutique in Cuernavaca presented an offering of some of the original designs that were still in Juli Lynne’s possession. The trunk show was a huge success, along with a Juli Lynne Calendar full of exciting photos from her career.
Today, she is working on her memoirs and remains active in the arts. She recently had a one-woman show where she read from her upcoming memoirs and regaled the audience with her beautiful stories.
The final photo in this article shows my personal favorite of Juli Lynne’s work.
The design includes an applique of Strelitzia, a genus of five species of perennial plants native to South Africa. The plant is also known as Crane Flower in South Africa. It is on the 50-cent coin in that country. It has been exported widely and is quite common in Southern Mexico. It is a popular garden plant as it grows well in semi-tropical areas. It is often mistakenly referred to as the Bird of Paradise or even the Mexican Bird of Paradise. However, it has no resemblance to the real Bird of Paradise. I have a Strelitzia plant in my garden, and it is a constant reminder of my friend Juli Lynne.
It seems that the world is indeed a tiny place, and adventures await around every corner. I highly recommend having conversations with perfect strangers when given the opportunity.