Herbert Sondheim, Inc. fashion business scrapbooks
Available digital items: https://digital.archives.newschool.edu/index.php/Detail/collections/KA003901.
Herbert Sondheim (1895-1966), who lectured at Parsons School of Design in 1946, ran a dressmaking firm that produced affordable versions of Parisian high-end fashion. The collection consists of nineteen Herbert Sondheim, Inc. scrapbooks, most of which contain fashion sketches. Some books include sketches depicting work of other couture houses. Two books contain news clippings, photographs and correspondence from the mid-1940s.
- 1923 - 1947
17.4 Cubic Feet (19 scrapbooks)
Language of Materials
Scope and Contents
The Herbert Sondheim Company scrapbooks consist of nineteen formerly post-bound volumes documenting the company's dressmaking business from the 1920s to the mid-1940s. They hold 8,145 sketches, which form the bulk of the collection. In addition, there are 359 non-sketch items related to the Sondheim Company. These include advertisements, news clippings, typed letters and memos, photographs, and fashion show programs.
Many of the sketches represented in this collection consist of original drawings, rendered in graphite, pen and ink, gouache, or watercolor; a number of the sketches are hand-colored prints. These sketches were produced by the company’s employees, by independent artists who sold sketches to the firm (including Ethel Rabin, Caroline G. Davis, M. Loff, and Fay Kozuck), and by agencies that supplied drawings to dressmakers (including Berley Studios, Cardinal Fashion Studio, Continental Fashion Studios, De Zine Studio, Edyth Sparag Studios, Frederic L. Milton, Kalle Originals, Margrete-Anne, and Minnie Abrams Studio). Many of the sketches are unsigned--the primary scrapbooks that include signed sketches are Scrapbooks 4, 14, 15, and 16.
Scrapbooks 1-3, 6-9 and 10-15 (over half of the collection) include numerous sketches drawn by Sondheim employees who attended the Parisian couture showings of Cristobal Balenciaga, Jeanne Lanvin, Edward Molyneux, Marcel Rochas, and Elsa Schiaparelli, among others. These renderings formed the basis for designing and manufacturing more affordable, mass-produced garments by the Sondheim firm back in the United States -- essentially, an early example of what is known as "fast fashion." Sondheim's agents may have sketched surreptitiously during the shows, paid for the privilege of being allowed to sketch the garments with the understanding that the resultant product would only be available on the U.S. market, or memorized the outfits and then depicted them after the fact. One of the drawings is labeled, "This is the best I remember this dress." The sketches often include precise details about styling and color. Sketches are often grouped by the sketch artist who produced them, but in most cases there is no clear order or pattern to the way they have been mounted in the scrapbooks. The sequencing of the scrapbooks themselves is also uncertain.
Scrapbooks 18 and 19 feature merchandising and publicity materials such as newspaper clippings, photographs, and printed matter generated by department stores throughout the United States to market Sondheim fashions to consumers.
Conditions Governing Access
Collection is open for research use. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for appointment.
To publish images of material from this collection, permission must be obtained in writing from the New School Archives. Please contact: email@example.com.
Herbert Sondheim (1895-1966) was a dominant player in the development of New York City's Seventh Avenue fashion business. His company, active from the 1920s to the 1960s, hired young designers to create high quality clothing marketed to an upper and upper-middle class American clientele. The firm played a major role in the mass production of copies of French haute couture, a lucrative and fundamental aspect of the emergent American fashion enterprise.
Sondheim inherited an interest in manufacturing clothes from his father, a producer of shirtwaists (women's blouses tailored in the style of men's shirts). After working for a time as a day laborer in New York's garment district, Sondheim--a piano player with a passion for the performing arts--started his own dance studio. There he met a student in the dress business Woolf and Schuloff, who offered Sondheim a job as a sales representative. This work was interrupted by World War I, when Sondheim left the position to join the United States Army.
In 1923, Sondheim became co-president of his own apparel manufacturing firm, the Sondheim-Levy Company in Manhattan. In June 1924, he married Janet Fox--or Foxy, as she was known--upon her graduation from Parsons School of Design. While Foxy's degree in advertising design prepared her to do promotional work for the company, she also pursued training in fashion design, taking additional courses at Parsons, Pratt Institute, and Berkshire School of Art. She became Sondheim's chief designer. By 1930, Sondheim had bought out his partner and become sole owner of the renamed Herbert Sondheim Company. In 1940, he separated from Foxy and she left the company. (Foxy later worked for Hattie Carnegie, going on to establish her own business, Foxy, Inc.) Sondheim had an eye for spotting promising designers. One of them, Frances Troy Stix--promoted by Lord and Taylor as one of the new American designers--came to work for Sondheim in the 1940s. Chester Weinberg--a 1951 Parsons graduate later known for his designs for Calvin Klein--had one of his first jobs in the industry working for Sondheim. In addition to working with an in-house staff, Sondheim purchased sketches from independent designers, including Victor Costa, who went on to become a leading bridal wear designer.
Sondheim earned a reputation for manufacturing well-tailored apparel of high style in an array of silhouettes that appealed to a range of upper and upper-middle class tastes. The firm produced both sophisticated urban clothing and chic casual wear, employing materials that ranged from lavish silk to synthetic rayon. Sondheim sometimes revived older, classic styles. In the 1940s, for example, he reintroduced a dress from the 1920s, updating it with a higher hemline in front and a low bustle in back. The firm supplied such high-end stores as Neiman Marcus, Lord and Taylor, and Henri Bendel. While Herbert Sondheim, Inc. also featured original designs, a large number of his styles were copied or adapted from French fashions. This was a common practice among American clothing manufacturers of the period. Indeed by the early 1920s, many American manufacturers--including Joseph, Tailored Woman, and Hattie Carnegie--did extensive business producing copies (now colloquially referred to as "knock-offs"). This business converted high-end, one-of-a-kind haute couture clothing into mass-produced garments sold at prices upper-middle class Americans could afford. When Sondheim entered the business of copying French clothing--a core part of his business from its founding--he quickly took off as a leader in the field. Sondheim, Foxy, and staff designers made frequent trips to Paris to attend the shows of such renowned couturiers as Coco Chanel, Jean Patou, and Madeleine Vionnet. The designers would sketch garments during or after the shows, making precise notes about color and styling. Back in New York, the sketches were used to copy or adapt the designs for mass-production.
To attract customers, Sondheim held fashion shows, entertaining the audience with live music. He played piano, and other musicians accompanied him on violins, drums, and double bass. Sondheim also mounted wide advertising campaigns, his promotions appearing in newspapers and magazines across the country, ranging from the Wichita Beacon to Harper's Bazaar. Outside of his business, Sondheim was very active in charity work and the development of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of New York. During World War II, he joined the Industry Advisory Committee of the War Production Board and the Office of Price Administration. In 1946, he lectured on merchandising at Parsons School of Design.
Sondheim was forced to close his company in 1964 due to rising costs and mounting debt. Two years later, at age 71, he died at his home in Stamford, Connecticut.
“Herbert Sondheim, 71, dead; founded couture dress house,” New York Times, August 2, 1966, accessed July 28, 2016, Proquest.
Idacavage, Sara. “A Taste for Caviar’: National Identity Ambivalence in American Fashion between 1930-1960.” Master’s thesis, Parsons The New School for Design, 2014.
Secrest, Meryle. Stephen Sondheim: A Life. New York: Knopf, 1998.
Organization and Arrangement
Because the original scrapbook titles and identifying information are unknown, New School Archives staff assigned scrapbook numbers in estimated chronological order, based upon scattered dates found within the scrapbook volumes, dates of activity of designers represented, and visual assessment of styles of dress depicted.
Donated by Herbert Sondheim to the library of Parsons School of Design in late 1960 or early 1961, prior to the establishment of an archives unit within the library.
Immediate Source of Acquisition
Transferred from Adam and Sophie Gimbel Design Library upon the establishment of the Kellen Design Archives in 1994.
Rebecca Carriero, Colleen LaVoie, and Karishma Singh inventoried the contents of the scrapbooks between 2004 and 2005, and Xenophon T. Barber and Maria Endara compiled a register, completed in either 2005 or 2006. Additional description provided by Sara Idacavage, 2014. New School Archives staff dismantled the original scrapbook housing but retained the identical sequencing of scrapbook pages, with the exception of Scrapbooks 8 and 9, which were dismantled by conservators. The sketches in Scrapbooks 8 and 9 were digitized and individually cataloged (SEE Other Finding Aids note).
- Berley Studios
- Cardinal Fashion Studios
- Clothing trade -- New York (State) -- New York (Subject) (Places) Subject Source: Library of Congress Subject Headings
- Continental Fashion Studios
- De Zine Studio
- Drawings (Type of Material) Subject Source: Art & Architecture Thesaurus
- Edyth Sparag Studios
- Fashion design (Subject) Subject Source: Library of Congress Subject Headings
- Fashion drawing (Subject) Subject Source: Library of Congress Subject Headings
- Frederic L. Milton (Firm)
- Kalle Originals (Firm)
- Kozuck, Fay (Designer)
- Margrete-Anne (Firm)
- Minnie Abrams Studio
- Photographs (Type of Material) Subject Source: Art & Architecture Thesaurus
- Schatkin, Florence Anne (Designer)
- Scrapbooks (Type of Material) Subject Source: Art & Architecture Thesaurus
- Sketches (Type of Material) Subject Source: Art & Architecture Thesaurus
- Women's clothing (Subject) Subject Source: Library of Congress Subject Headings
- Guide to the Herbert Sondheim, Inc. fashion business scrapbooks
- New School Archives and Special Collections Staff
- December 6, 2016
- Description rules
- Describing Archives: A Content Standard
- Language of description
- Script of description
- Language of description note