Only a vintage-clothing collector would be familiar with these Betties, Lindas and Margies, whose labels used to be sewn into ready-made fashions. Kansas City's garment trade was a powerhouse industry during the 1930s and '40s (the second biggest in town, after the stockyards). At its peak, 8,000 workers made dresses, coats, walking suits and fancy frocks in the downtown neighborhood between Sixth and Ninth streets, just north of the long-empty department stores fronting Petticoat Lane.
What happened to the companies that hired all those designers, seamstresses, cutters and salesmen? The buildings that housed manufacturers such as Brand & Puritz or Stern, Slegman, Prins are still there, but the textile companies are gone.
"The companies went out of business when clothing started being manufactured overseas, using cheaper, nonunion labor," says Ann Brownfield, who designed dresses in the garment district for twenty years. "It was a domino effect. One by one, the jobs -- and the companies -- went away." The local garment industry was all but extinct by the 1980s.
Brownfield is the director of Kansas City's Historic Garment District Museum. It's hidden in the lobby of the Poindexter Building at Eighth and Broadway. There's not much to see in this so-called museum (an oversize tape measure painted on the walls and a historic timeline of the district), and it's even harder to get into. One can either schedule an appointment with Brownfield or, she advises, "stand outside the front door and look lonely and see if someone lets you in."
It's hardly worth all that effort. But fashionistas shouldn't despair: Brownfield exhibits the good stuff -- period clothes, patterns and drawings -- throughout the display areas of Oggi Modern Furnishings at 600 Central. Brownfield's cache includes 1960s coats with rabbit fur dyed to look like chinchilla, chic 1950s peplum suits for fashionable secretaries, a sexy silk shantung dress in hot tangerine and wool car coats, all the rage in postwar America.
The Garment District does get a piece of public art later this year: a 16.5-foot-tall aluminum sewing needle to be installed in October across the street from the Poindexter Building. Though Brownfield is thrilled about that, she still needs a bigger place to display her collection of Kansas City-made stadium coats, Missy dresses and Parisian knock-offs.
Brownfield dreams of opening a real museum with hands-on exhibitions and a compelling vision of the district's history. That's why she's involved in this weekend's Charity Day program sponsored by the Jones Store. Brownfield has been hustling $5 tickets to the event because the Garment District Museum gets some of the proceeds. "Nobody seems to want to give me a grant," she says, "but this is a huge part of this town's history."