“Some people start out to see the rainbow over Niagara Falls,
the totem poles in Seattle or the Adobe Houses in New Mexico, but we were geared for fashion.”
Designer Isabel De Nyse Conover was the Jessica Simpson of her day. Feisty, artful and respected, her designs reflected a gracious elegance during the Roaring Twenties.
Not only a designer, Isabel was also Fashion Editor for Woman’s Home Companion. Her assignment for the July 1926 issue was to travel across the United States and compare styles favored by the women who lived there. Based on her impressions during the trip, Conover was directed to design 9 dresses inspired by her findings.
These are her designs, along with her edited notes taken from her travel journal about each city, as published.
Conover and her editorial staff companions, Willa Roberts and Corinne Dillon traveled from New York City to Atlanta, New Orleans, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Omaha and finally, Chicago.
Willa Roberts acted as both general assistant and editor on this particular escapade, while Corinna Dillon was illustrator who made Conover’s fashion designs come alive. In 1926, it was considered daring for women to travel without a man, especially on a transcontinental tour for business purposes. Conover wrote in her log that their hotel reservations were made by Willa Roberts, since her name was most easily changed to “William” Roberts for the sake of appearances.
Beginning at NYC’s Penn Station, the threesome enjoyed traveling to Atlanta, Georgia on one of the most elegant trains in service, the Crescent Limited. Now considered one of the most luxurious trains that ever traveled, the women were booked into one of the opulent, two-toned green Pullmans, which contained three separate, comfortable sleeping bunks.
“We congratulated each other on being attached to a national publication,” states Conover, especially since they were aboard the Limited, because their trip was entirely paid for by Woman’s Home Companion.
“Now that I have owned up to F.E. (Fashion Editor), you may jump to the conclusion that our (hat) box contained hats…(but) reporting fashions requires munitions, scratch pads, drawing paper, board, pencils, loose-leaf notebooks, Paris cables, and style comparisons.” Conover added that their calfskin hat box case was so tightly overpacked that it put a hump in one of their berths, when stored beneath. They had decided from the beginning that “we were out not to spring a new style on an unsuspecting Atlanta, Dallas or Los Angeles, but (we wanted to gather) impressions.”
“Our train rumbled into Atlanta in the twilight…we hailed a taxi and were whisked up Peachtree Street to the hotel…. There is a certain romantic feeling about motoring, tramping and shopping up at Peachtree Street…. My impression of Atlanta is the Peach Tree frock.” (illustration above)
“We stepped down from the train in New Orleans in the midst of a banana men’s convention. But I couldn’t work up much enthusiasm over a banana-colored dress. The next day we went through the candy kitchen of a large department store and my mind was full of spun sugar textures, caramel colors or peppermint stripes. But after I had my lunch, my interest in eatable impressions waned.”
“Due to good Louisiana cooking, we were in need of exercise so we did the old French quarter on foot…. After we caught the train…conversation revolved around Bienville and other gay cavaliers who are responsible for New Orleans being where it is.”
This conversation inspired Conover to design a “gallant, dashing” coat, directly inspired “from a French courtier’s costume of 1718.”
“Perhaps it’s because we came into Dallas at sunrise that it seems such a mirage in the plain. To me (Dallas) is a city to be exclaimed over, (with) high buildings springing from the flatness of the plains like an Arabian Nights picture. Sharp contrasts, high tempo. I think of it as a young city where one sees dash, daring and diamonds.”
“I put my Dallas impressions into a frock of contrasts…straight and flaring lines, black and white silk.”
“In one afternoon we drove over forty miles of Los Angeles streets and saw four thousand Spanish homes, to say nothing of missions thrown in on Sundays.”
Conover described the Spanish influences that practically overwhelmed her, “Spanish shawls, picturesque evening dresses with fitted bodices and long skirts (with) distended hips after the (old) court fashions…and Spanish lace…. oh, I could design a dozen dresses…instead of just one.”
Gray. Isabel describes a world wrapped in fog at San Francisco, a land with sharp “hills (against) classic buildings swathed in lovely misty gray. And the sea gulls…. Our trips back and forth to Berkeley are responsible for the filmy gray chiffon frock” that was designed to commemorate this city.
San Francisco, she wrote, is “a city with French imported frocks in the shop windows, and women everywhere who wore their clothes with an air. Then there are the sea gulls, as permanent a part of the seascape as the bay itself…and…(there was) that mist clung to the steep sides of the hills.”
“First thing in the morning when we looked out of our hotel window, in Seattle, we saw ships at anchor in Puget Sound. And we kept on seeing ships all day long.
It gave me something of a start to walk down a business street and stumble onto a miniature lake with a full-sized ocean-going ship riding serenely in the center of it. Having its barnacles taken off in fresh water, they told us. Whatever its errand in the business section of Seattle, it was a vivid picture.
There were the locks, too, and the shops, the interesting little shops that showed the jades and crystals that the ships brought from Shanghai and Hongkong.
On every side we were reminded of the Orient. I liked Seattle and I hope that Seattle like my impression of it that made me think of a China-blue frock and lacquer-red parasol.”
SALT LAKE CITY
“Zigzagging down to Salt Lake City, I thought I should have time to read a little history. But there was always a new mountain ahead of the train and by the time I had counted and classified some of the trees on it, there was another just coming into view. I had to go to bed early because I had to get up at sunrise in order not to miss the next mountains.”
“A log cabin nestling under its substantial marble hood, the first hour in Utah, is just one of the reminders of the covered-wagon days. We called it the Pioneer City, and to it I have dedicated a dress designed in the fashion of 1847, and very much in the style of 1926.”
“I was busy with the guidebook that told blood-curdling tales of the building of the railroad.
I was thrilled when we rounded a corner and faced a wooden Indian outside of a cigar store
There is no question about Omaha. It is cultured, groomed, sophisticated now, but it used to be the land of the Indians.
For Omaha I have taken artist’s license and adapted an Indian costume to the trim lines of a little daytime frock.”
“Coming out from the Chicago Art Institute and its collection of French moderns, we saw Michigan Avenue with its jagged towers in a late afternoon light, a street that might be reproduced in diagonals and triangles of sunshine and shadow. Chicago is the modern city, a city that is eliminating the superfluous. For Chicago…a modernistic print…because “Chicago is animated, brisk jocose. A city that might be painted in vigorous straight lines and angles in the modern school.” The three women, Conover, Roberts and Dillon went on to produce solid clothing designs, books and magazine articles for decades. Their career work during the 1920s laid exemplary professional foundations for all women.