The Jewish lady who dressed Milwaukee’s kids
It was Cole Porter who wrote, in 1934:
When folks who still can ride in jitneys
Find out Vanderbilts and Whitneys
Lack baby clothes
(Look at the banking industry today, dear reader, and shiver!)
What is this bit about baby clothes? The lyricist’s intuition is that, if you lack clothes for the baby, you really are down and out.
Baby clothes give dignity. They cover the baby’s nakedness and save the parents’ pride.
They remind parents why it’s worth being parents in the first place.
There aren’t a lot of babies in our monastery. We endeavor to keep it that way. But I come from a big Catholic family in Milwaukee, and my seven siblings have been diligent in imitating our parents. I now have 32 nieces and nephews, all (usually) clothed.
Baby — more exactly, children’s — clothes are the star of one of the greatest Jewish success stories in Milwaukee. I was reminded of this on a recent trip to the Midwest when I stopped at Jewish Museum Milwaukee — as it is postmodernly clept — downtown on Prospect next to the old folks’ home. (The eldercare facility has its own postmodern moniker, Chai Point. No kidding.)
A window in that museum tells of the illustrious Milwaukee brand, Florence Eiseman Children’s Clothing Design. Earlier, the MOWA — which, as you’re surely aware, is the Museum of Wisconsin Art — put on this splashy show. A big show centered around miniature dresses…
Who was Florence Eiseman, and why is her stuff in museums?
Florence, born a Feinberg, grew up in Minneapolis. Both of her parents were immigrants. She moved to Chicago after high school to help her brother in his business — according to her son Laurence, who left us this oral history. It was in Chicago that she met her future husband. They moved to Milwaukee to join another branch of the family.
After giving birth to her second son, a colicky baby, in 1931, her doctor diagnosed her as “nervous” and recommended she take up a hobby. Florence took up sewing: a fateful choice.
It was the Depression, and home sewing was very much of the time. Florence made clothes for family and friends. When the Second World War started, she kept at it. She began taking orders. But she soon realized she didn’t like catering to individual clients, subordinating her taste to their instructions. As her son tells it, Florence preferred to create what she liked, put it on the market, and see what sold.
Her husband, meanwhile, had started making model trains. In 1945, he took some manufacturing samples of his toys — and Florence’s dresses — to that Midwestern commercial Mecca, Marshall Field’s in Chicago (now defunct). When her husband came back, he had a purchase order in hand — but not for trains.
Florence had 300 dresses to make and no employees. But they were in business. Her husband gave up the toy train idea and went to work for her.
The Florence Eiseman brand has always focused on children’s wear. As the director of education at Jewish Museum Milwaukee, Ellie Gettinger, puts it, Florence’s operating theory was that children should look like children, not shrunken adults. That seems self-evident, but at the time Florence Eiseman was unusual. For instance, she decided not to impose a waist on children’s eggplant- or cucumber-shaped torsos. Sashes and cinches were out. Perhaps she took inspiration from Chanel in favoring natural, trapezoidal forms for her dresses.
That’s about dignity: her clothes made children pretty, but in a way that was tailored to them. Literally.
Eiseman understood and respected the child as a child. In the early ’50s, she resisted competitors’ party dresses that made kindergarteners look like Parisian matrons. Today, I’d like to think she would be fighting the slink-wear being pushed on the schoolyard set.
An Eiseman piece has lined fabric and covered zippers, the better to protect a child’s skin. Skirts have allowances that let hems be lengthened apace with lengthening legs. Her seams are bombproof, which means they’re mostly childproof. People love to hand her clothes down.
Eiseman died in 1988. Her talent did not go unnoticed in her lifetime. In the ’50s, Gettinger tells us she was the darling of the rich and reproductive. A baby Carrie Fisher was photographed in Eiseman on Debbie Reynold’s knee. The Kennedy kids wore Florence’s clothes; so did the goslings of Princess Grace. She was awarded the Neiman Marcus fashion award in 1955.
But Florence’s pieces are in museums for another reason. It’s because she understood children better than others in her trade. She respected them, and respect is a sort of love.
In March, in Milwaukee, I went to the museum’s permanent exhibition and walked past a massive Torah scroll from Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun. I saw what remains of an aron kodesh from a big Conservative shul of the 1920s that is now the Greater Galilee Missionary Baptist church. And then I came upon this vitrine:
Florence Eiseman: a tiny dress in a little glass case. But what looks so small here was, in its way, revolutionary.
Florence dressed children, and in dressing them, she taught them. Her company survives. Her clothes don’t force a kid to stand up straight with tight forms or scratchy fabric. But they might make children want to stand up straight — because they are learning, thanks to good clothes, to feel good in their own skin.
I suspect Florence Eiseman knew what Maria Montessori knew. She surely knew it better than I: in loving the child, you form the child. And children change the world.