Recognizing a fashion legend, Marshall Field’s

By Sean Stillmaker

The Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark St., held the second of a three-part series highlighting the role Marshall Field’s store had in the Chicago fashion scene.

On March 3, Timothy Long, Chicago History Museum curator of costumes, hosted a lecture describing the contributions the store made in the fashion world.

Marshall Field began his company after dissolving partners in 1881. The department store was then acquired by the Ohio-based Macy’s Inc., on Aug. 30, 2005.

A year later, Macy’s donated all files, photographs and available artifacts to the Chicago History Museum.

This donation provided a  wealth of information previously unknown, Long said.

Field led the industry with his unprecedented service model. Marshall Field’s was the first department store to implement set prices on products that were clearly marked. Customers would previously bargain on prices. Field then set up a policy where all items could be returned in exchange for a new one.

The most important thing Field stressed in his business was, “Give the lady what she wants,” Long said.

Field was in touch with his Chicago clientele, who were middle-to upper-class people, and brought them high-end fashion products at a reasonable price, he said.

“It was the epitome of quality and service,” said Susan Johnson,  a  Marshall Field’s shopper who attended the lecture.

Field died in 1906, but the company continued to pioneer innovative ideas that would bring forth customer satisfaction.

In 1947, Field pioneered a system of copying designer clothes, with designers’ permission, that would replicate the original as close as possible.

The first partnership Field had with licensing copies was with the French women’s fashion designer, Christian Dior.

To start the copying process, the original dress was bought or the exact measurements, fabric and pattern used were sent to the company.

At the lecture, Long showed an example of this. Christian Dior designed a red V-neck dress with swooping black line patterns. The copy has the same red fabric with a similar black line pattern. The only difference was the copy had a low swoop neck.

“It was interesting to me because I could recognize that the [copied] design was not that good,” said Lorraine Doberstein, a long-time Marshall Field’s shopper who attended the lecture. “The dress was

much more plain, [and] it didn’t have the flattering lines the designer dress had.”

The Chicago customers’ reaction to the level of fashion was very positive, Long said.

“They had an incredible amount of busi-ness in the fashion industry coming to their doors,” he said.

The female customers at the time were very knowledgeable of the fashion industry and interested in high-end designers, Long said. The original Parisian dresses could sell at $11,000, but a ready-to-wear, replica dress at Marshall Field’s could cost a couple hundred dollars, he said.

“[It confirms] how forward-thinking Marshall Field’s was as a retailer,” said Amy Meadows, attendee of the lecture who was also the senior manager of windows and marketing events for 25 years at Marshall Field’s. Meadows is also a teacher in the Arts, Entertainment and Media Management Department at Columbia.

The success of the pioneering relationship between Christian Dior and Marshall Field’s brought a long list of international designers to Chicago, Long said.

“Without that interaction, some designers would not have achieved as much success in this country if it were not for Marshall Field’s,” he said.

The third part of the series will be held on March 10 at 7 p.m. NBC5 contributing fashion reporter Barbara

Glass will moderate a discussion between Thea Robinson, manager of the Burberry Michigan Avenue store; designers Dieter Kirkwood and Bennett Cousins of Dieter/Bennet; and designer Anna Fong about the latest trends and future of fashion.