Fashion and fiber arts are two areas in which women have long excelled: Even at a time when businesswomen were nearly unheard of, "fashion was kind of this one little sliver that [people] were willing to sort of see women succeed in," per Clara Berg, fashion curator and historian at the Museum of History and Industry.
But that doesn't mean that their efforts have been adequately recognized. "There has historically been a division in the arts: fine arts, and decorative arts," says National Nordic Museum curator Leslie Anderson. Women frequently lacked access to the education necessary to participate in fine arts, while the arts that were available to them, like weaving, were seen as a lesser pursuit.
Nevertheless (sorry)...the women of the Pacific Northwest persisted. In honor of Women's History Month, here are eight local women who made a name for themselves in fashion and textiles—and proved that they're worth celebrating.
Helen Igoe: Seattle's First Boutique Owner
When well-known socialite and Seattle department store buyer Helen Igoe opened her own shop on Second Avenue in 1910, it quickly became “the Mecca of women who crave that ‘something’ which makes a woman well dressed instead of just dressed,” per a 1920 Seattle Daily Times article that credits Igoe with bringing the first French-style boutique to our city’s cobbled streets.
“‘Helen Igoe’ in Seattle is synonymous with good taste,” per the Times, in large part thanks to her proximity to the Parisian fashion scene. Berg says Igoe often took weeks-long journeys by plane, train, and steamship to bring the latest pieces back home to the Helen Igoe Shop for Women. “No matter what magazine writers may say to the contrary,” Igoe told the Times, “America will always go to Paris for her loveliest creations.”
Margaret Olofsson Bergman: Portable Loom Powerhouse
When asked by the Bremerton Journal how she first learned to weave, Swedish immigrant Margaret Olofsson Bergman said, “I think I always knew how, even if I got spanked for trying.” Despite her mother’s insistence that the young girl stay away from the loom—and her inability to reach the pedals—Bergman taught herself by weaving in secret and unraveling her work before her mother returned from milking cows.
Bergman went on to patent two portable folding loom designs that enabled her to teach her craft at her Washington weaving school, throughout the Pacific Northwest, and around the country, fostering a renewed interest in weaving and the start of a local industry, according to praise from several area newspapers. “She left an indelible mark on the weaving community,” Anderson says. Her complex patterns can still be found in weaving books today.
Dorothy Cabot Best: Womenswear Forebear
When Boston-born Dorothy Cabot Best opened Best’s Apparel on Third Avenue in June 1925 and stocked it with finds from buying trips to the East Coast, she quickly cemented her role as a tastemaker: One 1933 Seattle Daily Times article called Best’s finds “as new as tomorrow, as fresh as a spring morning, for they all came direct from New York City.”
When Best died in August 1958, Best’s Apparel closed for a day in her memory—but also perhaps because her husband and cofounder, Ivan, was lost without her discerning eye. He spent the ensuing years convincing a neighboring shoe store to absorb his womenswear company. In 1963, Nordstrom, Inc. acquired Best’s Apparel. “Had they not made that leap by purchasing Best’s,” Berg says, “they would not be where they are.”
Bernice Caverly: Century 21 Expo Expert
Fashion Group of Seattle president Bernice Caverly’s career alone qualifies her as an influential character in Seattle fashion—she spent 30 years as a merchandiser at department store Frederick and Nelson until her retirement in 1966. But perhaps her most memorable contribution was to the 1962 World’s Fair fashion shows, held four times daily around a perfumed pool for the fair’s entire six-month duration.
“Women like her were going to be really invested in showing Seattle off and showing that Seattle was fashionable,” Berg says. Caverly represented our city well, coming up with the fair's Century 21–inspired blue color scheme that started a national trend—mirrored by, if not directly influencing, the blue pinstripe suit worn to the fair by President John F. Kennedy himself.
Olive J. Smith: Department Store Dynamo
Olive J. Smith’s career serves as a who’s who of Washington fashion giants: the New York fashion school graduate and longtime Fashion Group member worked as a buyer for Rhodes Department Store, the Crescent in Spokane, the Bon Marche, and Nordstrom, helping transform the company from a shoe store into the women’s clothing industry leader we know it as today.
Mary Peters and Adeline Lorenzetto: Legacy Weavers
Coast Salish weaving was nearly lost to colonization in the first parts of the twentieth century. But thanks to the work of Stó:lō artist Mary Peters, then one of the few remaining women who had learned Salish weaving traditions directly, and Shxw'ōwhámél weaver Adeline Lorenzetto, who studied old blankets and patterns to relearn traditional methods, the art form was revived in the late 1960s.
The two women played instrumental roles in founding the Salish Weaving Guild in 1971. Though the guild has since dissolved, the art form remains alive today through groups like Salish Weave.
Henrietta Price: Millinery Force
Renowned Seattle milliner and entrepreneur Henrietta Swan Price made and sold custom hats out of her Madison Valley shop, Henrietta Hats and Accessories, for around three decades starting in the 1980s. Hers was an art form deeply intertwined with Black church customs, former Washington state representative Dawn Mason told The Seattle Times in a 2000 article about Price’s work. “Henrietta has helped keep the tradition going."
As recently as 2019, Price spoke at a Sunday Hat Parade held by MOHAI and the Black Heritage Society of Washington State, demonstrating the transformative power of a brim adjustment or an angled headpiece. “Wear a hat," Price told The Seattle Times in 2004, "and they'll never forget you."
Composite image photographs: Wirestock Creators / Shutterstock.com (background), Paul Christian Gordon / Alamy Stock Photo (Price), Courtesy Nordic Museum (Bergman), MOHAI (dress, Best’s building, shoe)