Our latest installation of What We Wore, featuring designer Peggy Hoyt. / THF189263
Our current What We Wore exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation features garments and hats designed by Peggy Hoyt.
Advertisement for Peggy Hoyt, Inc., 1923. / THF624600
Peggy Hoyt, from “The Right Angle,” The Christy Walsh Syndicate, 1922. Gift of Colleen Cruise Reynolds. / THF626352, detail
Peggy Hoyt began her career making hats as a milliner’s apprentice and went on to become a highly successful fashion designer whose creations would rival those of Paris.
The Early Years
Peggy Hoyt was born Mary Alice Stephens in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1886, to Charles J. Stephens, a partner in a wholesale lumber business, and Carrie Stiff Stephens.
As a child, Mary Alice liked to draw and paint. She had a keen interest in clothes, often designing and making clothing for her large family of paper dolls. When her father’s illness resulted in his inability to resume his business activities, the family’s fortunes declined. A Civil War veteran, Charles Stephens was by 1905 living in the National Home for Disabled Soldiers in Hampton, Virginia, where he died in 1915.
Carrie Stephens moved with her daughter to New York City about 1900. Here, she felt she would have a better chance to get work that offered more than a bare living, as well as provide educational advantages for her daughter, Mary Alice. Though finding work turned out to be harder than anticipated, Carrie Stephens eventually found a job as a comparison shopper for a large department store. In the years following, Carrie Stephens worked her way up to a position as one of the highest salaried European buyers for the department store B. Altman.
In 1905, 18-year-old Mary Alice Stephens married Frank Hoyt in Monterey, Massachusetts—though the couple separated after only 18 months of marriage and Mary Alice then returned to New York City. Life on a 500-acre farm in the Berkshires didn’t suit Mary Alice—she missed the excitement of urban life. She and Frank Hoyt finally divorced in 1911; she kept her married name.
Becoming Peggy Hoyt
In her late teens, Hoyt worked as an apprentice in a Fifth Avenue millinery (hat) shop. By 1910, with a talent for design, a flair for business, and $300 borrowed from her mother, Hoyt established her own millinery shop in tiny quarters on upper Fifth Avenue, a shopping destination lined with luxurious stores. A year later, the business was successful enough to warrant an upgrade. She rented a larger room in the same building and hired an assistant. By 1915, Peggy Hoyt, Inc. was born.
In February 1918, Hoyt married Aubrey Eads—an officer in the American Naval Aviation Detachment who had recently returned after 14 months in France during World War I. Eads became her business partner.
A Leading American Designer
In the late 1910s, Hoyt moved her growing business into the elegant Phillip Rhinelander mansion at 16 East 55th Street in Manhattan, where she added women’s clothing to her offerings. The mansion, located in Manhattan’s Upper East Side shopping area, provided over 27,000 square feet of space with a stately white marble hall and a magnificent stairway. Hoyt transformed the mansion into one of the most exquisite fashion centers in America. The first floor became a reception room, salon, and fitting rooms. The second floor was devoted entirely to millinery. The top floors held workrooms and a lunchroom for employees.
Peggy Hoyt leased the Phillip Rhinelander mansion on at 16 East 55th Street, transforming it into a stunning setting for her increasingly successful salon. Gift of Colleen Cruise Reynolds. / THF120772, THF120770
A few years after she moved to the Rhinelander mansion, Peggy Hoyt ventured into theatrical costume design for a brief time. Her elegant costumes for Henry W. Savage’s revival of The Merry Widow in September 1921 were a huge success. The following year, she created costumes for the Savage musical The Clinging Vine.
Program for The Merry Widow. The operetta ran for 56 performances in fall of 1921 at the Knickerbocker Theatre in New York. Note the credits for Peggy Hoyt at the top of page 33 (you can click through to our Digital Collections to zoom in). / THF624648, THF624630, THF624638
Hoyt quickly became one of the foremost American designers of gowns and millinery. Her designs were creative and unique, employing her signature pastels, rhinestone ornaments, and handkerchief hems. Hoyt designed each of the hundreds of gowns and hats in her shop, taking great pride in her work. For nearly twenty years, Hoyt dressed a small, but exclusive, clientele in every large American city.
Advertisement: "Peggy Hoyt: New York's Smartest Millinery and Dressmaking Establishment," April 1925. / THF624602
Peggy Hoyt discussed the type of garment, color, style, and fabric with her client, and then sketched the designs. Hoyt oversaw the next steps in the workroom, where staff cut and sewed the garment. Clients had their very own dress form, an adjustable mannequin on which Hoyt’s designs came to life. At the client’s next appointment, the garment was taken to the front of the salon for the final fitting.
A Peggy Hoyt Client: Elizabeth Parke Firestone
Elizabeth Parke Firestone, about 1927. Gift of Mrs. Harvey Firestone, Jr. / THF119839
Receipt for Mrs. H.S. Firestone, Jr. from Peggy Hoyt, Inc., 1934. Gift of Martha F. Ford. / THF626330
Elizabeth Parke Firestone of Akron, Ohio—wife of tire magnate Harvey S. Firestone, Jr.—was among the wealthy women who frequented Peggy Hoyt’s salon. Mrs. Firestone traveled to New York, where Hoyt would confer with her client and then create the beautiful garments and hats for Mrs. Firestone shown here.
Evening dress designed by Peggy Hoyt, 1928. Gift of Mrs. Harvey Firestone, Jr. / THF6688
Evening dress designed by Peggy Hoyt, 1928-1929. Gift of Mrs. Harvey Firestone, Jr. /THF6720
Chemise dress designed by Peggy Hoyt, 1929. Gift of Mrs. Harvey Firestone, Jr. / THF6710
Evening dress designed by Peggy Hoyt, 1931. Gift of Mrs. Harvey Firestone, Jr. /THF6731
Cloche designed by Peggy Hoyt, 1920-1935. Gift of Martha Firestone Ford and Anne Firestone Ball. / THF17330
Cloche designed by Peggy Hoyt, 1925-1936. Gift of Mrs. Harvey Firestone, Jr. / THF30500
Picture hat designed by Peggy Hoyt, 1925-1935. Gift of Mrs. Harvey Firestone, Jr. / THF6754
Picture hat designed by Peggy Hoyt, 1926-1936. Gift of Mrs. Harvey Firestone, Jr. / THF6747
An Unhappy Ending
Peggy Hoyt, Inc., box lid, 1925-1935. Gift of Colleen Cruise Reynolds. / THF188547
At its height, Peggy Hoyt, Inc., earned over $1 million annually and had hundreds of employees. Yet Peggy Hoyt, Inc.—and Peggy herself—would not survive the depression of the 1930s as the faltering economy brought down the thriving business.
Peggy Hoyt died by suicide on October 26, 1937 (though her family maintained that her death resulted from pneumonia). Hoyt, who had an intense dislike of personal publicity, had asked her mother and husband to honor her wishes for privacy upon her death. At the request of Hoyt’s employees, her husband did consent to a small service at the Little Church Around the Corner (the Church of the Transfiguration) before Hoyt’s body was brought to Detroit and laid to rest in Elmwood Cemetery.
Peggy Hoyt, Inc., briefly continued after Hoyt’s passing, with her mother and husband maintaining the salon until its bankruptcy and liquidation in 1939–1940.
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Stacy McNally, Local History & Genealogy Librarian at the Public Libraries of Saginaw, and Gil Gallagher, curatorial volunteer at The Henry Ford, for their meticulous research assistance on Peggy Hoyt. Many thanks also to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.
A new group of garments from The Henry Ford’s rich collection of clothing and accessories makes its debut in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in our What We Wore exhibit, this time examining how fashion trends can highlight, or manipulate, the human form.
What makes these sleeves puffy? A stiffened underlining--pleated muslin fabric--helps support the sleeves. Sometimes a “sleeve plumper” was used--down-filled pads that tied on at the shoulder under the dress.
The wide silhouette created by these “leg-of-mutton” sleeves and matching pelerine (small cape that covers the shoulders) not only drew attention to the wearer’s arms, but also emphasized the smallness of her waist!
Who wore this dress? During the 1830s? We don’t know. Later, Tasha Tudor (1915-2008), author and illustrator of children’s literature, owned the dress.
Tudor admired the objects and rural lifestyle of the early 19th century. She lived in a secluded New England farmhouse with no plumbing or electricity, surrounded by an orchard, rambling garden, and lively farm animals. Tasha Tudor also collected antique clothing--and wore it.
What supported the elaborately draped fabric at the back of this dress? A bustle--a support of parallel horizontal slats made of wood or steel bent in a half circle. The bustle attached to the body around the waist. A tightly laced corset helped create her extremely small waist.
But how did she sit down? The slats would all collapse together as she sat, then spring back in place when she stood up--maintaining her fashionable silhouette.Between the fabric of the dress and the bustle, garments of this period could be quite heavy to wear!
Who wore this dress? Mary Stevens (1861-1910), the daughter of wealthy capitalist. The Stevens family lived on Woodward Avenue in Detroit, a street lined with the homes of prosperous Detroiters.
Mary Stevens had a privileged lifestyle. She had the money to purchase finely made fashionable clothing. And led a social life that gave her opportunities to wear it. A few days before Christmas 1884, Mary’s mother gave an elegant reception at the Stevens home--complete with elaborate floral decorations, refreshments, and a full orchestra. Could this be the dress that Mary wore that afternoon?
What undergarment helped achieve this slender, youthful silhouette? A straight-line, one-piece garment called a corselette. It de-emphasized the bust and smoothed the natural curves of the body--emphasizing the straight, unbroken line of that era’s “boyish” silhouette.
The movement of the uneven hemline, while walking or dancing, would subtly call attention to the wearer’s legs.
Who wore this dress? Audrey K. Wilder (1896-1979) likely owned this dress. Audrey attended college--quite unusual for women of her time. She graduated from Albion College, then earned a master’s degree from Columbia University in 1921.
In the late 1920s, Audrey Wilder was appointed Dean of Women at Ohio Northern University. One of her first projects was the creation of the first social hall for women on campus--a place where female students could hold teas, receptions, musicals, and dinners. Those who knew her described Audrey as a “dynamic dean” and a woman “of exquisite grooming.”
What undergarment helped create the “hourglass” silhouette of the 1950s? Christian Dior’s “New Look”--with its close-fitting hourglass silhouette--dominated the 1950s. This look emphasized a tiny waistline and feminine curves. Longline bras helped slim the waistline and create a smooth line under garments.
This dress, Dior’s “Sonnet” design, also accentuated the waist through the angled side bodice seams, bows at the waist, and rounded skirt.
Who wore this dress? This dress was custom-made for Elizabeth Parke Firestone (1897-1990), wife of tire magnate Harvey S. Firestone, Jr. Elizabeth felt it her duty to represent her husband, family, and the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company with dignity and grace. She was always flawlessly dressed--whether for informal camping trips, world travel, business functions, or society parties.
Elizabeth had a fine eye for fashion and favored New York and Parisian designers, including Christian Dior. These designers created garments to her specifications, including perfect fit, style, color, fabric, and construction. During the 1950s the New York Dress Institute named Elizabeth one of the "Best Dressed Women in the World.”
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.
Elizabeth Parke Firestone (1897–1990) was the wife of Harvey S. Firestone, Jr., son of the founder of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company. As a well-heeled and fashion-conscious woman, she both traveled to and corresponded with many famous couture houses in Paris, including the House of Dior.
An inquiry from Dior last year led to our digitization of many of the articles of Christian Dior clothing in our collection that belonged to Mrs. Firestone, but when we dug even further, we turned up over 370 Dior design drawings, mostly dating from the 1950s. Many, like the 1955 “Fête a Trianon,” are intricately colored, and include handwritten notes and fabric swatches, giving potential customers a taste of their glamour. Visit our Digital Collections to peruse all of these Dior design drawings. Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
Elizabeth Parke was a trim, blue-eyed beauty. The daughter of a prosperous merchant in Decatur, Illinois, she was full of life and adventure. Elizabeth loved to dance and enjoyed parties. Good thing, too; she met her handsome, intelligent, wealthy husband-to-be at a dance at Princeton about 1920. Young Harvey S. Firestone, Jr., the son of the founder of Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, must have found her to be a spirited partner. He learned to fly airplanes during World War I and she did not seem to mind climbing in one with him. The Firestones often traveled for business and pleasure. Elizabeth enjoyed trekking through jungles and sleeping in grass huts in exotic locales as much as she relished dining in sumptuous hotels with royalty.
Elizabeth had a fine eye for fashion. As a teenager, she attended school in Europe , studying French and learning about applied and fine arts. Family notebooks include some early costume sketches in her hand for theatrical presentations. Family members recall that young Elizabeth designed and sewed many of her own fashions before her marriage in Decatur on June 25, 1921.