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European and N. American Costume

Printed linen day dress
American, ca. 1930s–40s; the textile, Circus, designed by Ruth Reeves, 1931
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Ruth Reeves (1892—1966) was perhaps the most well-known female industrial designer of the 1930s. Born in California, she studied at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute and the Art Student’s League before coming under the influence of M. D. C. Crawford, design editor of Women’s Wear, and Stewart C. Culin, curator of ethnology at the Brooklyn Museum, mentors who endorsed the study of museum specimens to generate a characteristically American design idiom. Reeves trained in the early 1920s as a painter under Fernand Léger in Paris, before returning to America, in 1927, where she worked with Donald Deskey, Paul Frankl, Henry Varnum Poor, and Ilonka Karasz to win over American consumers skeptical of European modernism. She exhibited with, and was a member of, the American Designers’ Gallery, the American Union of Decorative Artists and Craftsmen (AUDAC), and the National Alliance of Art and Industry.

Circus, befitting its name, was one of Reeves’s most well-traveled patterns, appearing at exhibitions from the 1930s through 1950. Inspired by the textiles of Raoul Dufy, Reeves included acrobats, a lion tamer, a horse dancer, the ring leader, and spectators, each suspended in vigorous movement. Circus debuted at the Brooklyn Museum in the summer of 1931 as part of an AUDAC exhibition of its members’ work. “Miss Reeves has set a new standard in modern drapery design and use of material,” noted Good Furniture and Decoration, calling Circus a “striking drapery fabric [that] will be of never failing of interest to children especially.” Though it made an excellent exhibition piece, it appears not to have gone into general production until the New York firm Morley-Fletcher reissued it in 1947.

Although she drew thousands of costume sketches as an illustrator at Women’s Wear in the 1910s, Reeves never designed full-scale garments. However, during the Depression, several textile manufacturers and associations used clothing made from their latest fabrics, including those by Reeves, as promotional tools to spark usages beyond upholstery. In 1931 and 1932, the Cotton-Textile Institute sponsored fashion shows at several midwestern schools incorporating textiles designed by Reeves. “High school girls acted as models to demonstrate the costumes in the show,” reported Women’s Wear Daily of the Kansas City “style show.” Dewan’s 1936 catalogue also featured models in garments of textiles designed by Reeves and Marguerita Mergentime, “novelties” that it predicted would inspire “ingenious needlewomen.” It is unknown if this dress was created as a similar promotional tool, or if they are the result of adventurous home sewers.

For more information, see the 2018 Cora Ginsburg Modern catalogue.

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