Born: Thomas Franklin Brigance in Waco, Texas, 4 February 1913. Education: Attended Waco Junior College; studied in New York at the Parsons School of Design, 1931-34, and the National Academy of Art; studied in Paris at the Sorbonne and at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiére, Paris. Military Service: Served in the U.S. Air Corps Intelligence Service, South Pacific, 1941-44, decorated for bravery. Career: Worked in Europe as a freelance fashion designer, designed in London for Jaeger and for Simpson's of Piccadilly, late 1930s; designer, Lord & Taylor, New York, 1939-41 and 1944-49; opened own firm, 1949; also designed in New York for Frank Gallant, and freelanced for Fonde, Sportsmarket, and designed swimwear for Sinclair and Gabar, Water Clothes, 1950s; retired, late 1970s. Awards: Coty American Fashion Critics award, 1953; International Silk citation, 1954; National Cotton award, 1955; Internazionale delle Arti award, Italy, 1956. Died: 14 October 1990, in New York City.
New York and Hollywood Fashion: Costume Designs from the Brooklyn Museum Collection, New York, 1986.
Milbank, Caroline Rennolds, New York Fashion: The Evolution of American Style, New York, 1989.
Stegemeyer, Anne, Who's Who in Fashion, Third Edition, New York, 1996.
Sheppard, Eugenia, "What's Coming Next?" in the Herald Tribune, 28 October 1947.
"Designer Brigance Speaks to a Mill," in American Fabrics and Fashions (New York), No. 25, 1953.
Schiro, Anne-Marie, "Thomas F. Brigance Dies at 70: Designed Sophisticated Swimwear," in the New York Times, 18 October 1990.
Eleanor Lambert's 1951 press release for Tom Brigance quotes the young designer: "Good American clothes should be able to go anywhere. They should not be designed with a single town or section in mind. They should be appropriate for the American woman's mode of living, expressive of her individual personality, and suitable for the climate she lives in." Brigance spoke and designed with the plain common sense of Will Rogers and the utmost simplicity of the American ethos. No one could more readily have epitomized the Main Street ideal of an American fashion designer than Brigance. From Waco, Texas, slim, dark, and charming, Brigance became a recognized designer in 1939, while still in his twenties, as part of Dorothy Shaver's campaign to create American designer identities at Lord & Taylor.
His first success was in active sportswear and beachwear. In an advertisement in Vogue (15 May 1939), Lord & Taylor boasted of its new American hero, "When you come to the World's Fair be sure to visit our Beach Shop on the fifth floor, home of creations by Brigance, one of our own designers, whose ideas enchant even the blasé Riviera." Anne-Marie Schiro reported in Brigance's obituary in the New York Times (18 October 1990) that the Duchess of Windsor bought half a dozen outfits from his first beachwear collection in 1939, a formidable endorsement for any young designer. Brigance remained a designer at Lord & Taylor until 1949. Although he later designed a full spectrum of clothing, including eveningwear, his forte through his retirement in the late 1970s was sportswear, especially playsuits, beach-and swimwear. At Brigance's death in 1990 Schiro reported: "He retired in the late 1970s after a two-year stint with Gabar whose owner, Gabriel Colasante, said this week that a Brigance-designed skirted swimsuit is still one of his company's bestselling styles. Colasante decreed that regardless of the print, the Brigance-designed suits still sell consistently."
Brigance was at his best when at his most simple. His employer Lord & Taylor boasted of Brigance in a 1947 advertising in the Herald Tribune : "His suits and coats have the distinctively American lines that inspire individuality with accessories." Like Claire McCardell, Brigance used fabric ties and sashes to shape waists and create form; his coats and suits were uniformly unadorned, but inflected with relatively large buttons in interesting placement.
By the late 1940s, he was acknowledging the New Look, not in its extreme forms, but in a modified version in which the skirt or peplum flared with pockets, adding practicality to the gesture of the wider skirt. His play clothes were his most imaginative, suggesting the spectrum of leisure from beach pajamas through halter tops and playsuits with shorts and skirts. For summer, his preference was generally for colorful cottons, often with dots. His swimwear presaged the American idiom of dressing in warm climates in clothes as suitable for the street as for the beach and swimming.
Distinctively, Brigance enjoyed pattern mixes more than most of his contemporaries. Today his surprising combinations of florals, geometrics, and exotics are strikingly bold and seem more advanced as textile fusions than others of his generation. While his ideological interest was reductive, his style was always to supply plenty of material and ample coverage. He kept a loyal, even aging, clientéle because he flattered the body with informal exposure that was never scanty, even in swimwear and playsuits. One could be unfailingly modest and self-assured in Brigance. His design sensibility for minimalism was also aided by his interest in fabric technology—his nylon swimsuit of 1960 exploited the fast-drying material. In 1955 he was the only man among seven American designers, including Anne Fogarty, Pauline Trigére, and Claire McCardell, to style interiors for Chrysler Corporation cars.
Eugenia Sheppard, writing in the Herald Tribune in October 1947, claimed that Brigance had Aristotle's phrase "nothing is permanent but change" set over the mirror in his design workroom at Lord & Taylor. Change for Brigance was ever modest; sportswear was also a credo, believing in the practical aspects of clothing. Less adventurous than McCardell or Cashin, Brigance (along with John Weitz) anticipated the emergence of great male designers in the 1970s and 1980s era of American sportswear. Like them, he was his own best salesperson and a kind of native hero, the man who not only dressed the American ideal woman of suburban chic, but also the man for whom she dressed. His 1949 dinner separates in pleated jersey exemplify Brigance's contribution to design: a quintessentially American look— informal, sporty, innovative, open, and yet demure.