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 unusual 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 (Read more on Joseph Jacobs) and Affiffie Forzly 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. (Helen's childhood)
“ Jacobs Family Portrait,” Helen is standing between her father and mothercourtesy of Barbara Dahan and David Malhame
As a teenager, Helen was 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, Helene 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. (Helen as entrepreneur)
As Helene 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.
Helene 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
In addition to style and design, color was of particular importance to Helen’s undergarments. With an eye for complimentary colors, she paired contrasting colors, such as green silks and nude laces, geranium rose and jade green stripes to create eye-catching color schemes. Women’s Wear Daily praised Helen for her adeptness in juxtaposing color, declaring, “from a style point of view, color harmony is an outstanding feature” found in Helen’s many collections. With her tailored lingerie, moreover, Helen preferred to use contrasting colors in her necklines, piping, and appliques to enhance the garment’s color palette. Notably, Helen’s blazer striped tub-silk beach pajama is a prime example of her strength in color pairing. Both the button-up top and pants had alternating wide stripes of tan and brown with narrow white stripes, and another set with bold chartreuse and orange stripes. The contrasting colors and vertical stripes helped to elongate women’s bodies while simultaneously highlighting the flowing and non-restrictive structure of the masculine-inspired pajamas. Helen followed this formula with many of her later pieces, which went hand in hand with her notions of feminine and fashionable style, body liberty, and comfortability.
After Joseph Sr.’s heart attack in 1931, Helene Lingerie was liquidated and both Helen and her sister, Evelyn, moved on to various New York-based design houses. At this time, the two sisters assumed responsibility for paying for their brothers’ schooling and, after the death of their father in 1933, paid off their father’s remaining debt. In a letter from Chase National Bank, the senior vice-president wrote that “filial devotion...is so rare that I am prompted to express...our sincere appreciation.” This letter, a point of pride for the family, was of particular importance given that the sisters were earning just enough to support the family, which makes such an acknowledgement symbolic of both their integrity and ability to persevere.
Helen’s trajectory in the design industry continued to rise, and she worked as head designer at Needle Art Corp. designing handmade domestic cotton pajamas and beachwear. In 1934 she was hired as head of the silk lingerie designing staff at Sussberg &
Fienberg on Madison Avenue, and was sent abroad on various months-long voyages to Italy, France, and Belgium to make fall selections for the firm. Two years later, Helen was offered a lead design position at Sussman Silk Co. and moved abroad to Shanghai, China with her husband, David Malhame. After returning stateside in 1941 due to the effects of WWII, Helen and her family eventually settled in Milford, Pennsylvania where she and her husband opened Malhame Vestment Company, which she owned and operated until her retirement in 1966.
While the archives leave few clues as to the level of impact Helen had on the industry after the mid-1930s, her family provides insight on her prominence in the design field and the many impressions she made. For example, Evelyn, who grew up and worked under her sister for a number of years, went on to become one of the most celebrated lingerie designers in the industry, working as lead designer for Troub & Gross and the globally recognized company, Laros Lingerie. Her brother, Joseph, recalls that the community praised Evelyn for her independence, a trait she picked up from her older sister, and was viewed as “the quintessential career woman a generation ahead of her time.” Helen’s children, moreover, followed in their mother’s footsteps and entered into the design industry. Her son, David, purchased Helen’s business, Malhame Vestment Company, and operated it until his retirement in 1999. Her daughter Barbara, likewise, attended Pratt Institute and studied interior design and architecture. Both David and Barbara attest to their mother’s magnetic personality, passion for the industry, and dedication to providing for her family as their inspiration. These traits reflect Helen as, above all else, a truly exceptional woman, designer, wife, and mother.