When Women Ran Fifth Avenue: Glamour and Power at the Dawn of American Fashion by Julie Satow

We all know so much about the dramas of the 20th century, from the one that ended with the Treaty of Versailles to the one that ended with our parents’ divorce. Less familiar, but no less intense, were a handful of dramas that took place in three department stores in Midtown Manhattan, where a trio of remarkable women broke with tradition and took the helms of landmark stores: Bonwit Teller, Lord & Taylor, and Henri Bendel. In When Women Ran Fifth Avenue: Glamour and Power at the Dawn of American Fashion, Julie Satow tells their stories. Through them, Satow also charts the discovery of American designers, the birth of ready-to-wear, and the rise and fall of the department store as the palace of American retail.

The grand department store was a French idea. In 1838, Le Bon Marché opened in Paris with stained-glass ceilings and sweeping staircases. The concept jumped the Atlantic in 1862 when the world’s largest, most opulent store opened in Lower Manhattan. The Palace dealt in such luxe that in a single summer First Lady and compulsive shopper Mary Todd Lincoln’s bill came to half a million of today’s dollars. As other department stores sprang up, customers flocked to emporiums where they could buy clothes, bed linens, pianos, porcelain, and pets all under a single, soaring roof.

The 20th century brought the Roaring 20s and flappers flush with cash. It also brought the Great Depression. Business dried up and the stores that survived the 1929 crash felt weary and neglected. Cue our three heroines: Hortense Odlum, Dorothy Shaver, and Geraldine Stutz. Hortense was named president of Bonwit Teller in 1934. Dorothy climbed the ranks to Lord & Taylor’s top job in 1945, and Geraldine arrived at Henri Bendel’s as president in 1957. Over these decades, they transformed their stores, tackling advertising, employee management, design, customer relations, and, above all, the merchandise itself.

Hortense Odlum, of Bonwit Teller, brought quality to America.

They inherited clothing racks filled with cheap knockoffs of Paris originals and poor-quality dresses mass-produced in the Garment District. Hortense went straight to the Seventh Avenue manufacturers, who grudgingly filled her orders for simple, tailored clothes made of good fabrics. Meanwhile, she designed new departments for the customers she envisioned. When the merchandise met the marketing, Hortense’s instincts, like all her many innovations, proved very profitably on target. Quality had come to America.

Dorothy’s climb at Lord & Taylor took her through many roles, each an opportunity to reshape the store. Her changes were bold, but none was as important as one that came with Word War II. The fall of Paris cut French designers off from the world, giving a fresh impetus to an idea Dorothy had pushed for years: the American Look. She opened a department exclusively for American designs. She created the annual Lord & Taylor Design Awards. Life magazine devoted a multi-page photo essay to the American Look, a phrase the store copyrighted. At last American designers, so long overlooked, took the lead in American retail.

Lord & Taylor’s Dorothy Shaver having lunch at her desk in New York.

At Henri Bendel, Geraldine virtually created the customers for her exclusive, expensive merchandise. She sold only sizes 0 to 6, describing her aesthetic as “dog-whistle fashion” that “only the thinnest and most sophisticated women would hear.” Her canny buyers scoured the world for unique and exotic merchandise. Geraldine also sent them to the backstreets of Europe in search of struggling talent. What they found was the new concept of prêt-à-porter, ready-to-wear designer fashion, in the hands of newcomers such as Sonia Rykiel, Kenzo Takada, Jean Muir, and Valentino. Henri Bendel brought their work to Manhattan’s chic-est, sveltest shoppers. Ready-to-wear soon became a staple of American clothing.

Satow writes with verve about these women’s careers, which turned their stores’ finances around, and with empathy about their private lives. She has a great eye for amusing and revealing details. She also tells the larger tale of the world that led to the rise of the department stores and to their downfall. Defeated by the retail onslaught of suburban malls and discount stores, Henri Bendel, Bonwit Teller, and Lord & Taylor are all gone now. In a final slap to the past from the present, the historic Bonwit Teller building was razed to make room for a new landmark for a new age: Trump Tower.

Robin Olson is a writer and painter. She lives in Vermont