STARKVILLE – Elizabeth Gwin has always had her own sense of style.
Her mother made all her clothes when she was growing up, fashioned after designs Gwin created. Then, Gwin herself learned to sew.
“I’d get these Vogue patterns and come up with these wild clothes,” said Gwin, who turned 100 in May. “I love things that are unusual. I think I’ve always been conscious of style.”
So it wasn’t surprising that when Gwin and husband Howell, now deceased, moved to New York for him to attend Columbia University in the mid-1930s, she would look for a job in modeling.
“Back then, the way to do it was to get an interview with John Robert Powers,” said the Columbus native. “If he liked you, you had to bring a large portfolio. If you were accepted, you were under contract for him. Most of his models were face models and I didn’t have the face, so I never interviewed with him.”
Instead, Gwin went to work for fashion designer Charles Armour.
“I’d never heard of him,” she said. “Schiaparelli, Coco Chanel – those were the only ones I knew. But I went. This lady ushered me in and took me down the hall and told me to put on this black dress. It was awful. It hiked up in the back and one shoulder was lower than the other. It was tacky.
“I took it off and put on my own clothes and was headed out the back door when I heard this voice say, ‘Where are you going?’ And I turned to him and told him that the dress looked awful. And he said, ‘Anybody that could make that dress look half-decent has got a job.’ I started working for him right away, showing his clothes.”
Gwin and four other young women worked for Armour, putting on one sheath dress after another for buyers from department stores like Neiman Marcus, Marshall Field’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bonwit Teller.
“It sounds really glamorous, but it was hard work,” she said. “In January, with snow on the ground, we’d show cruise wear. In August, we’d be in fur coats. Being on the runway was the icing on the cake. That was the fun part.”
Gwin had a natural figure for modeling. At 5-foot-7-inches and 120 pounds, she possessed the requisite 36-26-36-inch measurements for models.
“I still weigh the same today, but my measurements have shifted,” she joked.
Gwin doesn’t pretend to be a fashion expert. But she knows good taste when she sees it.
“I think Michelle Obama has a marvelous sense of fashion. But on campus, I’m just amazed at how unkempt some of the students are and how short some of their clothes are,” said the MUW grad. “I think you have to dress for your figure. If they could just see themselves, I don’t think they’d dress that way.”
Even today, Gwin doesn’t feel all together comfortable in slacks. She prefers tops and long full skirts.
“I feel dressed up when I wear that,” she said. “My daughter buys a lot of my clothes and sends them to me and she picks some wild things. I tell her I can’t wear things like that anymore. I’m trying to be sensible.”
While many of the women she worked with in New York 75 years ago planned to model the rest of their lives, Gwin realized that her time in the spotlight was fleeting.
“I knew it was a temporary job and as soon as Howell got his degree, it would be over and we’d come back home,” she said. “It was wonderful, but such a small part of my life. To a lot of people it seems so important, but it’s not really.”
What is important to her is Camp Tik-A-Witha, the Girl Scout camp near Van Vleet in Chickasaw County, which Gwin founded.
“We had the 35th camp for the handicapped this year,” she said proudly. “It’s the most wonderful feeling that these 20 children get to act like other campers. They swim, they canoe. And their parents get this whole week of freedom.”
Check out the fall fashion section in today’s NEMS Daily Journal.
Ginna Parsons/NEMS Daily Journal