American Originals: Unsung Talents Who Are Finally Getting Their Due at the Met in “In America: An Anthology of Fashion”

Jessie Franklin Turner, Known for Teagowns and Neglected
Jessie Franklin Turner was a “homegrown” talent in more ways than one. The designer was noted for her tea-gowns, which were intended for intimate, mainly indoor settings, though a Turner dress was the highlight of “Two on the Terrace,” a well-known 1932 vogue photograph of a stylish tete-a-tete. Turner, as the magazine would note in 1933, had a “feeling for gracious living.”

Jessie Franklin Turner: “You might wear this tea-gown for dinner at home or at a country house-party—and know that you looked as charming and as chic as in any evening gown. It’s a diaphanous affair of white chiffon delicately embroidered with silk leaves, and its long, flowing sleeves follow the line of the train.”

Photographed by The 3, vogue, August 1, 1932

Another way Turner kept things close was by leaving very little in the way of biographical information about herself. The most thorough tracing of her career appears to have been provided by Patricia Mears’s 1998 paper for the Textile Society of America, in which the curator traced Turner’s career arc back to a junior college in Peoria, Illinois, and a part-time job selling underwear at a local shop. What we today would describe as lingerie touches are a recurring theme in this designer’s work.

From school, Turner started designing clothing, and worked in New York for James McCutcheon & Company (an import business that also offered original designs), before moving on to Bonwit Teller & Company. At some point the designer also studied sculpture with the French artist Antoine Bourdelle, and he could be said that that training is reflected in his hands-on approach; she worked directly on the body. “She designs as she pleases—cutting, pinning, and draping the fabric, with no previous drawing,” reported a wire service journalist. “She creates her own tints in watercolor, and her dyes then reproduce them. One of her greens is from Botticelli’s paintings…. Her evening gowns, known for their elegance, are molded to the figure with intricate seaming. … The designer’s rule for 1934—and it will be the same each year—is, follow the lines of the figure.”

Writing in 1940, 20 years after Turner started working under her own name from a swanky Park Avenue shop (the business was started as Winifred Warren, Inc. in 1919), and two years before she retired, vogue described the designer as “a one-woman show,” whose “color sense started her out on her career as a designer of extravagantly beautiful teagowns and neglects.” Turner’s work combined romance and elegance, color and line. Her dresses, noted voguewere for anyone “who wants to look fragile, not brittle.”

Jessie Franklin Turner: “Statues in Satin.”

Illustration by Ruth Sigrid Grafström, vogue, November 15, 1938

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