Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



From Creating Textiles: Makers, Methods, Markets. Proceedings of the Sixth Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, Inc. New York, NY, September 23–26, 1998 (Earleville, MD: Textile Society of America, Inc., 1999).


Copyright © 1998 by the author(s)


Jessie Franklin Turner was an American couturier who played a prominent role in the emergence of the high-fashion industry in this country, from its genesis in New York during the First World War to the flowering of global influence exerted by Hollywood in the thirties and forties. The objective of this paper is not only to reveal the work of this forgotten designer, but also to research the traditional and ethnographic textiles that were important sources of inspiration in much of her work. Turner's hallmark tea gowns, with their mix of "exotic" fabrics and flowing silhouettes, evolved with the help of a handful of forward-thinking manufacturers and retailers who, as early as 1914, wished to establish a unique American idiom in design. Morris De Camp Crawford, a specialist in ancient Peruvian textiles and later Design Editor of Women's Wear spearheaded the promotion of this pro-American movement in the 1910s and twenties. Crawford proved to be a pivotal figure because he introduced textile designers and, later, fashion designers like Turner to unique sources of inspiration, including ethnic and non-Western garments and fabrics in the permanent collections of the Brooklyn Museum of Are land the Museum of Natural History.

While it is difficult to assess the long-term influence of Crawford's efforts on American textile design, they were invaluable to Turner, who established both an unparalleled reputation as this country's first true couturier and a successful business that lasted until 1942. Created with fabrics inspired by museum pieces from the Islamic world, East Asia, Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent Africa, the Americas, and Eastern Europe, Turner's tea gowns and day clothes became popular with wealthy New Yorkers and were often featured in the editorial pages of Vogue, Hamer's Bazaar, and Town & Country throughout the twenties and thirties. Access to museum collections made Turner's designs very different from both her American and French contemporaries; they often preferred rococo and neoclassic sources, as well as contemporary, art moderne design dements. A small number of Turner creations still exists in museum collections, and a few of these will be analyzed in an effort to trace the original museum pieces that inspired them. In most cases, neither the original ethnographic textile nor the modem reinterpretation survives, so period illustrations and photographs must suffice.