History’s Headlines: Hess’s fashion maven | History’s Headlines

It would be hard to say what was the high point of Hess’s fashion director Gerard “Gerry” Golden’s career. There were many of them. But March 3, 1967, must have been close to it.

That morning readers of the New York Times had a lot of news to choose from that day. The Vietnam War was at its height, and it looked like former attorney general Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was shaping up as a tough contender for the White House with sitting President Lyndon Johnson. Back on page 29, the entertainment section, Hello Dolly was going strong with Martha Raye in the lead and there was a box with outsized letters that read “WHAT! YOU HAVEN’T EVEN SEEN MAN OF LA MANCHA ONCE?”

Gerard "Gerry" Golden

Gerard “Gerry” Golden

But Golden’s attention surely must have been riveted on the article on page 30. “Hess of Allentown Shows its Imports,” the headline read. Underneath the byline of Times fashion writer Bernadine Morris was an account of the latest fashions Golden had brought back from Europe.

“Prices are down in the newest couture import assembled in Europe by Hess’s department store of Allentown, Pa,” the article began. “A crystal beaded dinner gown by Antonio del Castillo is priced at $7,500–$1,500 less than last season’s most expensive style, also a Castillo. But the reduction isn’t significant according to Gerard (Gerry) Golden, the store’s fashion director. ‘Summer clothes are always a little cheaper,’ he observed yesterday before introducing the first presentation of the latest European import fashions in New York at the Americana Hotel,” which hosted many celebrities of the era in that decade, including the Beatles.

Morris went on to note that this was Golden’s 48th fashion trip to Europe. The night before the gowns had been previewed in Pennsauken, New Jersey at a dinner for 2,500 women. Over the next four months Golden would be holding 250 more shows for women’s groups in eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey civic organizations. They would also be presented in Hess’s Patio restaurant daily and featured in the store’s large picture windows, artistically staged by Hess’s vice president of design, Wolfgang Otto. “The average housewife has been influenced by TV. She’s not interested in daytime clothes or whether an outfit has welt seams or baggage seams, she wants excitement,” Golden added. About 75 percent of the collection was Italian and a good part of the rest French. But, according, to Morris, Golden had also included fashions from designers from Africa and the Near East.

Bringing fashions from other, often-overlooked countries had been a hallmark of Golden. He had been doing so since his early days as a fashion director for Hess’s. They were more affordable than the couture from Europe and so introduced it to Americans who might never see it otherwise. This article in the Times was just the sort of thing Max Hess liked to see promoting his store. Glamour and elegance and a touch of the world outside of the Lehigh Valley made his store unique. This was what Golden succeeded in bringing to his 24 years at Hess’s. Having a fashion director playing a significant role in the emerging European fashion world of the day burnished the store’s image in both the Lehigh Valley and internationally. According to one source, Hess insisted the store be listed as having outposts in London, Paris and Rome. They may have been no more than a phone on a desk, but they were there.

Hess's fashion show newspaper ad

Hess’s fashion show newspaper ad

Looking at Gerard “Gerry” Golden’s early life, it would not have been guessed he would have had an interest in fashion. Born in Pittston, Luzerne County he was the son of Martin A. Golden III and Florence Golden. He had a brother, Martin. After attending Bucknell University, where he was trained as an engineer, he was employed as a treasurer and sales manager of Lenox Manufacturing Company of Catasauqua. During World War II he served with the Army Engineers in the Pacific as a first lieutenant, receiving several citations for his service.

In 1947 Golden went to work for Hess’s as a fashion millinery buyer. According to the memory of one former longtime Hess’s employee, the story was that Max Hess saw Golden buying women’s hats for the store. Something about his technique impressed Hess, or so the story goes, and he decided on the spot to give Golden a chance by sending him on a buyer’s trip to Japan. Hess had a reputation for making on-the-spot decisions and the trip to Japan was apparently Golden’s big break. Although that country was just beginning to emerge from World War II, it was a success. “He became the first American buyer to introduce a high fashion collection of designer originals in the Orient,” noted the New York Times. This was followed by trips to Greece and Turkey returning, according to the Times, “with the first collection of designers in those countries to be shown in the United States.”

Hess's caravan

Hess’s caravan

Both Golden and Hess were fortunate to have come along during that period of post-war America. According to art and cultural writer Louis Menand in his recent book “The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War,” the years between 1945 and 1973 were a unique period when culture crossed the transatlantic world. From the existentialism of philosophers in Paris to abstract expressionism from artists in New York, ideas flourished. Not everyone was comfortable with it. Time magazine in that era referred to abstract expressionist artist Jackson Pollack as “Jack the Dripper” for his famous drip paintings. Couture was also influenced in the new “free world” style. Even Hollywood got into the act with movies set in the fashion world like 1955’s “Fancy Free” with Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire and 1957’s “Designing Woman” with Lauren Bacall and Gregory Peck. Hess and Golden in their way took advantage of bringing that international fashion sense to the Lehigh Valley.

It was in 1952 that Golden made his first major foray into the world of European fashion by bringing Elsa Schiaparelli to Hess’s to display her newly created lingerie fashions. In truth Schiaparelli was past her prime as a fashion designer. A native of Rome she had lived in America after running away from her aristocratic family. She returned to Paris and made a reputation in the 1920s and 30s with perhaps her most famous client being Wallace Warfield Simpson, aka the Duchess of Windsor. Others included screen stars Greta Garbo, Katherine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, Vivien Leigh and Ginger Rogers, among others. At the same time, Schiaparelli also kept up with American department stores, offering dresses to the upper middleclass market.

If American women in the Lehigh Valley and Allentown knew anything at all about European fashion, Schiaparelli was the name they knew. When she came to Allentown it attracted many to Hess’s, bringing the romance of Paris fashion with her. But Golden was not only keeping an eye on the past but looking toward the present at well. In 1947 Paris designer Christian Dior had come out with the longer length “New Look” dresses that raised eyebrows if not hemlines. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some returning World War II G.I.s preferred their wives and girlfriend’s shorter skirt length right where it had been. But Paris had spoken. Dresses that reflected this “New Look” style were quickly available at Hess’s.

Hess's department store in Allentown

Hess’s department store in Allentown

Apparently most important to Golden in the 50s was encouraging emerging Italian fashion designers. Ever since the 19th century, fashion had meant Paris. But there was a lot of talent in Italy whose work he wanted to encourage. Among those he contacted at first – although not Italian, but based in Rome- was Irene Galitzine. Born into the Galitzines, a Russian noble family at the time of the Revolution, they fled to Rome. After studying fashion with Italian designer Sorelle Fontana in 1946, she opened her studio in Rome.

Golden met Galitzine in 1955 and suggested she come to Allentown, which she did that year to show her designer originals. Her most popular item was her so-called “palazzo pajamas” a type of silky lounge pants evening wear that took their name from the Palazzo Pitti in Florence where they were first introduced. Later, in the words of the New York Times, “her salon on the Via Venato was where DuPonts and Fords competed to have first crack at her designs.” Galitzine did not forget Hess’s and returned there several times, most notably in 1963. By then she numbered Jacqueline Kennedy and Elizabeth Taylor among her clients.

In the 1960s Golden was appearing on seasonal local T.V. specials. Obviously, the expensive designer fashion items were not in the range of most of Hess’s customers. But that apparently was Golden’s and by extension Hess’s point. They got shoppers into the store and once there they would buy something.

The store’s sale in 1968 and the death of Max Hess, age 57, the same year ended the goals he and Golden shared.

On February 16, 1971, the Morning Call announced the death of Gerry Golden at his brother’s Catasauqua home after an illness of several months. He was 55 years old.

Katheleen Knopf

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