Early twentieth-century lingerie designer Helen Jacobs was a leading figure in the New York intimate apparel industry. She was affiliated with national and globally recognized companies, and praised for her design innovations, impeccable handmade lingerie, and international style expertise. Jacobs’ modernistic undergarments were reflective of the Art Deco fashions permeating the global landscape throughout the 1920s. With usual cuts, hand manipulated laces, decorative appliques, and hand painted motifs, her lingerie embraced the simplicity and ease of movement found in the French garçonne and “New Woman” flapper style. Focusing on women’s comfort and mobility, Helen paid particular attention to women’s bodies and current fashion trends, designing her undergarments according to women’s new-found liberation from the constricting nature of the boned corset. Sold at major department stores and small boutiques around the country, her celebrated pieces were revered by Women’s Wear Daily and Dry Goods Economist, and exhibited at major fashion shows, including the 1926 Negligée and Lingerie Fashion Revue, the 1928 Spring Promenade of the United Underwear League, and the 1929 and 1930 Spring Juvenile Show at the Hotel Astor in Times Square. With Jacobs’ remarkable talent, independent spirit, and unflagging work ethic, her prolific career spanned over five decades, took her around the world, and inspired several family members to pursue careers in design.
A first generation American of Lebanese descent, Helen Jacobs was born in 1901 to Joseph Jacobs and Affiffie Forzley in Putnam, Connecticut, a small northern town known for its knitting factories. In the years following Helen’s birth, Joseph, a peddler of sewing supplies and razors, opened his first office in lower Manhattan. There, her father “continued the tradition of helping newly arrived Lebanese by selling straight razors on credit and sending them on their way to peddle.” With Joseph’s small business thriving, the family of nine first lived in a Lebanese-American community in Brooklyn Heights and, due to his climbing success, later moved to a brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Unfortunately, Joseph’s business took an economic hit during WW1 and his business was wiped out by domestic competitors. In financial ruins, the tight knit family banded together to help Joseph pick up the pieces and reestablish financial stability.
“ Jacobs Family Portrait,” courtesy of Barbara and David Malhame
Near the age of twelve Helen, the first of the Jacobs girls to drop out of school, sought out full-time employment to help support the family. Building upon the sewing skills she learned from her mother, Helen enrolled in design classes at the local YWCA where she honed her skills in sewing and pattern making. Over time her talent matured, and she secured a job with French Art Lingerie Co. in Manhattan, an intimate apparel company manufacturing “boudoir ensembles of pajamas and gowns.” Between 1923 and 1924, Helen secured enough capital to open a family business, Helénè Lingerie, on account of her rising talent and prominence in the undergarment industry. Designated lead designer, Helen both designed and constructed numerous collections of handmade lingerie pieces and sets with her younger sister Evelyn at their studio in the Flatiron District on 16 West 22nd Street, and later relocated to 162 Madison Avenue in Manhattan due to their expansion in both hand and machine-made undergarments.
As Hélène Lingerie’s lead designer, Helen developed stylish and affordable cotton, silk, and crêpe de chine undergarments for both modern women and young girls. She pulled inspiration from Parisian runway shows and couture trends she encountered on her many trips abroad. Adopting the trends permeating women’s fashions in the 1920s, Helen created forms and shapes that contoured and complimented the body through fitted waistlines (Vol. 29, Iss. 95, Oct. 21, 1924), pleated panels for flaring (Vol. 29, Iss. 120, Nov. 20, 1924), angled fabrics for flowing silhouettes (Vol. 38, Iss. 42, Mar 1, 1929), and low cut decolletage and back stylings for both day and night wear. In an interview with Women’s Wear Daily, their correspondent recalled Helen’s design inspiration, writing, “Miss Helene admits that she often resorts to dresses as an inspiration for new lingerie ideas.” Such inspiration, for example, is found in elements of Coco Chanel’s sports-inspired daywear, which Helen incorporated into her athletic underwear and bandeau set, the Tomboy. Focusing on the popularity of a new and simpler look sweeping the globe, Helen’s Tomboy set seamlessly weaved together a slenderized, masculine hipline with colorful and playful plaids and gingham checks. Chanel’s influence further permeated Helen’s nightgowns by shadowing the long slim line made popular in France, and also incorporated lacework and decorative elements into her garments to “soften and romanticize” the overall look of the garment. Likewise, with the sudden importance of prints, she innovated her undergarments with hand-painted waterproof motifs, which have been described as “a bunch of roses or a spray of lilies of the valley,” that decorated the hemlines of gowns and slips to mirror the colorful printed chiffons of 1920s dresses by art deco designers, such as Paul Poiret and Jean Patou.
Hélène Lingerie’s handmade chemise in gray chiffon voile with a high waistline and applique circles in deep orange. Photo courtesy of Barbara and David Malhame. Caption from Women’s Wear Daily Vol. ?, Iss. ? (?????)
ARAB AMERICAN ART