Born: Christine Wetherill Shillard-Smith in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 12 December 1910. Education: Studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the School of Industrial Arts, Philadelphia, and at the Sorbonne. Family: Married Curtin Leser, 1931 (divorced, 1936); married James J. Howley, 1948; children: Georgina. Career: Sold designs through her own shop in Honolulu, Hawaii, 1935-42; also formed a company in New York, 1941-43; designer, Edwin H. Foreman Company, New York, 1943-53; designer, Tina Leser, Inc., New York, 1953-64; designed Signet men's ties, 1949, Stafford Wear men's sportswear, 1950, and industrial uniforms for Ramsey Sportswear Company, 1953; retired briefly, 1964-66; retired permanently, 1982. Awards: Fashion Critics award, New York, 1944; Neiman Marcus award, 1945; Coty American Fashion Critics award, 1945; Sports Illustrated Sportswear Design award, 1956, 1957; U.S. Chamber of Commerce citation, 1957; Philadelphia Festival of the Arts Fashion award, 1962. Member: National Society of Arts and Letters Fashion Group. Died: 24 January 1986, in Sands Point, Long Island.
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Tina Leser was an early and very successful proponent of an American design aesthetic inspired by textiles and clothing from non-Western cultures. She traveled through Asia, India, and Africa as a child, and lived in Hawaii after her first marriage in 1931, which may explain the ease with which she later adapted influences from those areas into her designs. Although she is remembered today primarily for this gift, her success was not confined to that genre, but also encompassed references to other folk and historical traditions.
Her earliest work was done in Hawaii, where she opened a shop in 1935 selling high quality ready-to-wear and playclothes of her own design. She used Hawaiian and Filipino fabrics, and even hand block-printed sailcloth. In 1940 she brought her work to New York where she was to open her own firm, but only began to be a force in fashion in 1943, when she joined the Edwin H. Foreman sportswear firm as designer.
Leser's work during World War II reflected the fabric scarcities of the wartime economy, and the limits of wartime travel. From Mexico she derived a printed flannel jacket with sequined trim; from Guatemala a strapless dress made from a handwoven blanket. Sarong-styled dresses and wrap skirts were an important part of her design vocabulary at this time, possibly stemming from her years in Hawaii. She varied these with less exotic styles, such as a tartan cotton playsuit with a matching shawl and kilted skirt, and wonderful wool flannel calf-length overalls—offspring of a very American idiom.
From the first Leser emphasized an uncluttered mode, and by the end of the war she had won awards from both Neiman Marcus and Coty for her contributions to American fashion. She had also widened her horizons to include India—very much in the news in the immediate postwar years—with her dhoti pants-dress, available in several versions for a variety of occasions. The facility with which she could adapt one model into many styles can be attributed to her artist's eye for proportion, and clean balance between line and form.
What was, in theory, an around-the-world honeymoon trip with her second husband in 1949 became, in practice, a way for Leser to collect fabrics, clothing, and antiques from a multitude of cultures. She based designs on objects as varied as an English game table, Siamese priest robes, an Italian peasant's vest, and a Manchu coat. Her mature work, from this date on, displayed a consistent sense of humor and intelligence in her choice of references.
Her collections included many "play" pieces but also contained relaxed day and evening clothes eminently suited to the needs and budgets of many postwar American women. Her variation on the ubiquitous 1950s sweater twinset was a halter with an embellished cardigan, and she is also credited with introducing the cashmere sweater dress. Sensitivity to the realities of life for working women induced her, in 1953, to design a line of industrial uniforms for Ramsey Sportswear Company. The trim fitting separates included a skirt to be worn over uniform slacks on the way to or from work.
Her fabric choices as well as her fashion inspirations were wide-ranging. Indian sari silks, Pringle woollens, Boussac floral prints, and embroidered Moygashel linens shared her stage with the "Modern Masters" print series made of Fuller cottons, Hope Skillman wovens, Galey & Lord ginghams, and Wesley Simpson prints. She championed denim as a fashion fabric, using it in 1945 for a two-piece swimsuit trimmed with chenille "bedspread flowers," in 1949 for coolie trousers and sleeveless jacket, and in the mid-1950s for a strapless bodice and wide cuffed pants. American bandanna prints or tablecloth fabrics were as likely to show up in her work as copies of Persian brocades, and they might equally be used for playsuits or cocktail dresses. One butterfly patterned batik print turned up as a swimsuit and cover-up skirt, capri trousers and strapless top, a sarong dress, and even as binding on a cardigan sweater.
Leser was active throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, maintaining her flair for sportswear, loungewear, and bathing suits. Some of her best pieces from this period were slim toreador or stirrup trousers worn with long, boxy sweaters or baby-doll tunics, and her coordinated bathing suits and cover-ups remained strong. The details of her designs, however, are rather less important than the spirit she brought to them. Many young American designers carry on the referential style Leser helped establish—creating, as she did, something uniquely American from a melting-pot of cultural sources.