This is a success story about a girl who couldn't sew, had no money, but turned an idea into a International phenomena in the 1940s.
This past week, I had the opportunity to spend a delightful week traveling by car though western Mexico with Juli Lynne Charlot, the creator of the Circle Skirt, which quickly became known as the Poodle Skirt due to the decoration of appliqued poodles. Remarkably, while I was an art student in college in the mid 1960s, our instructor had us study the design and marketing of the Poodle Skirt.
When I heard that Juli Lynne would be accompanying our group on the trip, I wondered if it could be the same person and with a little advanced research found that it was indeed the same woman. My excitement in meeting Juli Lynne grew and 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. In fact, she was an absolute delight!
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.
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, which was followed by acting.
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, who 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 and she begin 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, along with 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.
This led to a 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 "father of Mickey" 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.
As the war came to a close, Juli Lynne met and married Philip 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 changed dramatically with the New Look. WWII fabric restrictions were lifted and 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 at the time Juli Lynne decided to make her own skirt for the Christmas party. Juli Lynne states in an United Press article of February 25, 1953 that, "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 which used felt and thus she had a free course of that material. She states that, "I cut the circle out of felt, which allowed me to cut a complete circle skirt without having any seams. I added some whimsical Christmas motif appliqués and the result was so attractive that she received many compliments at the party.
A week later, still 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 prior to Christmas 1947. The owner was excited and quickly put them on the floor where they sold immediately. The store owner called her to place an other order and thus Juli Lynne Charlot California began. There was a big demand for the whimsical felt designs and life seemed rosy for awhile.
Juli Lynne tells the story of how she, "saved up a little money and opened my own factory to make the felt circle skirts with a variety of designs other then 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."
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 it's way to a great success and 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 felt roses, realistic yellow daffodils, water lilies complete with a discreet frog and various whimsical story patterns were appliquéd to the skirts.
The Poodle Skirt
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. But there’s more to Juli Lynne and her creations. After Christmas the Los Angeles boutique requested a non-holiday design.
It was quite fashionable at the time for women to be accompanied by dogs on leashes and thus Juli Lynne decided to make a dog-themed skirt. As always, her designs told a story and the dog skirt was no different. Juli Lynne came up with the idea of three dachshunds: two females and a male. The first dog was a flirty girl, the second was a girl with her nose stuck in the air, and the third was the male who was trying to get to the flirty girl. But all the leashes became intertwined so the male dog could only get to the stuck up female.
The boutique loved the skirt and they sold well, and in early 1948, Juli Lynne designed a similar one with poodles, which proved to become widely successful than the dachshunds. And thus the iconic Poodle Skirt was born. Within a short time the president of Bullocks Wilshire in Los Angeles called Juli Lynne. He had seen the Poodle Skirts and he wanted her to do similar designs for Bullocks. Not only that, he gave her the windows on Wilshire Boulevard to decorate with her skirts. She did a series of six designs for the windows.
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 customers. By the time Juli Lynne was 24, she had a clothing factory and 50 employees. She decided it was time to learn to sew and so she started design school. She was so busy that she didn’t have time for the classes, so she quit, and then hired her sewing teacher. She learned how to sew on the job from this teacher turned employee.
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 so they could tell them to the customers.
Poodle Skirts were fun to wear and fun to dance in. They were widely worn by all the girls 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 has become a symbol of that era.
Poodle Skirts were made from wool felt that was cut out in the shape of a big circle. A hole was cut in the center, and a waistband was added to secure it to the waist. Many of these skirts carried an appliqué of a poodle, along with other 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 with teenage girls, who wore them at sock hops (school dances), and as everyday wear. The skirt was easy and fun for people to make at home, since the design was simple and the materials easily available. Movie stars commonly wore this skirt, and it featured widely in magazines and advertising, and many were eager to keep up with Hollywood's fashions, adding to its popularity.
The Poodle Skirt remains one of the most memorable symbols of 1950s Americana and is frequently worn as a novelty retro item, part of a nostalgic outfit. A similar design of these skirts became popular today. The skirts have been shortened, and the band has stayed.
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 race horse themed circle skirt on a model who has dreamed she was at the races. The original Juli Lynne Charlot Horse Racing Circle Skirt sold a few years ago for $665 by AntiqueDress.com.
To go with her skirts, Juli Lynne made matching bustiers, stoles, boleros, halter tops and sweaters, and there were 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 one of her designs.
Although she is best known for her wonderful full skirts, Juli Lynne has had other clothing enterprises. Her last design venture started with a trip to Mexico in 1980, where 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 around the world.
Everything was going well until the Mexico City Earthquake of 1985. Her factory collapsed, and though she tried getting her dresses made in New York, it was too expensive and so the business was lost.
While in Mexico, she also fell in love with the country and in particular the town of Tepoztlan, just outside of Cuernavaca. She knew immediately 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 one of Juli Lynne's sweaters with it's applique and three dimensional felt rose. This is an excellent example of the work produced by Juli Lynne in 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. I was surprised at the vast numbers of pieces that are available and how well they have been preserved. This shows how people value the work of Juli Lynne.
Today Juli Lynne remains spry despite having turned 90 in October and often bursts into song with a wonderful 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 around the world 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 that 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 and was accompanied by a Juli Lynne Calendar full of interesting 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 wonderful stories.
The final photo in this article shows my personal favorite of Juli Lynne's work.
The design includes an applique of Strelitzia, which is a genus of five species of perennial plants native to South Africa. The plant is also known as Crane Flower in South Aftrica and is featured on the 50-cent coin in that country. It has been exported widely and is quite common in Southern Mexico where it is a popular garden plant as it grows well in the semi-tropical area. In Mexico it is often mistakenly referred to as the Bird of Paradise or even the Mexican Bird of Paradise, although it has no resemblance to the real Bird of Paradise.
At the conclusion of our week long trip across Mexico, Juli Lynne invited me to her home and I intend to take her up on the offer. I want to spend more time with this wonderful woman and get to know her better.
It seems that the world is indeed a very small place and adventures await around every corner.