By Lance Avery Morgan
When vintage was new, it was an era of unprecedented glamour in Austin and San Antonio. Retail provided big city sophistication for San Antonio and Austin from the 1930’s to the 1960’s in a legendary way. Here’s a look back at the way grand fashion style used to be…
Imagine a world where everyone, at all times, wanted to be as beautifully dressed as possible. It wasn’t that long ago when hats, scarves, gloves, coats and cloaks were just some of the accessories that were de rigueur during the time between 1935 and 1965, which represented the hallmark era of a fashionable Texas, and in particular San Antonio and Austin.
During this time the retail world existed in the downtown and nearby areas of these cities where one would go to shop, work, dine, and be entertained. Walking down the streets in the downtown of these cities, it was apparent then that the residents took pride in their appearance and dressed to impress. In fact, being fashionable was a requirement and created the strict style standard that rarely rebelled. Fashion thrived and the community was consumed and appreciated the retail-wonderland of its independently-owned stores and boutiques. It was high-end or the highway.
The shopping mecca of San Antonio was rooted into the downtown area of Commerce and Houston streets. Signature family-owned department stores ruled the retail world, which allowed these the stores, and the families who owned them, to have a prominent place within the city. In order to fuel their fashion needs, residents would take buses, shuttles, or streetcars, if they didn’t have their own transportation, from neighborhoods into the shopping hub. Based on the weather of the season, many well-dressed women wore many hats, large and small, complimenting the outfits to add more than a spark of originality. Gloves were a daily necessity whether for shopping, tea or business. This was called “finishing” an outfit, along wearing the right matching bags, shoes and jewelry.
A few of the exceptional retailers in the downtown and surrounding areas of San Antonio area were Frost Bros., The Vogue Shop, Joske’s and Julian Gold. Joske’s, a long time city favorite that also opened stores in Austin in the 1970, for instance, by 1953 had a flagship store had been expanded several times. The 551,000 square foot, five-level store was the largest department store west of the Mississippi until its closure in 1987. The slogan for the chain was “the biggest store in the biggest state.” Like many large department stores, they offered everything from clothing to sporting goods, furniture and everything in between. And, air conditioning, a modern feature that would never be taken for granted in the warm Central Texas summers.
“Coming from Seguin with our mother to spend the day shopping downtown San Antonio was an adventure in the big city lights,” recalls San Antonio resident Peter Selig. “We shopped for school clothes or special occasion clothing at Joske’s, where we might have lunch at the store’s mural-walled Camellia Room. On other occasions we tagged along to Frost Bros. for our mother’s frequent shopping trips.” He goes on to recount, “Frost had the style that was as close to her native New York City homeland as she could get in South Texas. Our reward for being patient would also be a fried shrimp lunch at the always-humming Manhattan restaurant nearby on Houston Street.”
The Frost Bros. department store, which originated in downtown San Antonio before its growth to Austin and other markets, was known for carrying high-fashion pieces and employing personal shoppers when the first shop opened in 1917, thriving until mid-1989. In fact, today it could be compared to Henri Bendel’s on Fifth Avenue in New York. In its heyday, the urbane customer could shop in such departments at Frost called the Blouse Bar, Predictions Shop, Young Miss Frost Shop, Millinery, La Boutique, Collector’s Corner, Rendez-Vous Dresses, Couturier Collections, Collector’s Corner, and the Maison Antoine Beauty Salon on the fourth floor. The store was ranked with Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, even having their own in-house Gucci boutique at one point and many still recall the grayish lavender dress boxes with a long-stemmed flower across the store’s italicized logo.
Another San Antonio based luxury shop, Julian Gold, was established in 1945 on Broadway in the city’s tony Alamo Heights neighborhood, and remains committed to delivering Texas women an array of designer clothing and shoes. “Originally we sold only suits, dresses and coats,” says Robert Gurwitz, the company’s current leader. “ We didn’t carry sportswear until the early 1960’s and before that Julian Gold mainly sold pants and blouse lines and dresses. Sportswear and separates really came in the 60’s.” The founding principles for the shop were “service, fashion, and more service,” and the stores continue to thrive in four locations across Texas in Austin, Midland and Corpus Christi.
Austin, a hipster mecca now, renowned for its live music scene and music festivals, has always been primarily known as the capitol of state government and The University of Texas, as well as a city with a small town feeling. It has always been known to have a keen fashion sense, too. Starting in the late 20th-century when the technology boom arose, the city’s elite rediscovered downtown. Yet, 50-plus years ago downtown Austin was the epicenter of the city; it was around which everything else revolved.
The undisputed leader of retail then was Scarbrough’s department store located at Sixth and Congress, across from Woolworth’s. It offered big city style for the local marketplace and since it was built in the Art Deco period, always retained that era’s glam factor. Another one of the city’s original retail stores was Yaring’s department store, located on Congress Avenue. In the 1960’s it embraced the youthquake movement, like so many other stores did, by installing pink shag carpeting and creating pop art displays. Other stores also had Austin retail by the reins. “We had the French Bootery, Marie Antoinette, Goodfriend’s, and Scarbrough’s were the primary downtown stores,” recounts longtime resident and philanthropist Jo Ann Christian. “The French Bootery had wonderful shoes and Scarbrough’s had excellent selections in women’s wear and a good hat department.”
Other prominent stores in the era included T.H. Williams dress shop, Price’s dress shop, Chenard’s dress shop, which later became Snyder-Chenards, when it merged with Synder’s dress shop. It is interesting to note that most of the best women’s stores in the 1960’s through the 1980’s had “Teen Boards” that utilized local, pretty teenage girls to draw in the younger crowd, as well as providing the members some modeling opportunities in the store.
The retail stores devoted to men helped Austin and San Antonio residents look like matinee idols. In San Antonio, Frank Bros. and Wolff & Marx’s men’s departments ruled the roost, along with the Lads ‘N Dads departments at the finer department stores. In Austin, stores like Merritt, Schaeffer, and Brown, National Shirt Shop and Slax Menswear provided up-to-the-minute looks, as did Morton’s Boy’s and Men’s Shop. Reynolds Penland Menswear was the penultimate for men who wanted to look their spiffiest. “Back then men knew that their clothing introduced them before they opened their mouths. Retail was a bit more of an art than a service.
Salespeople were professionals and not clerks,“ recalls Mike Reynolds, scion of the store. “I was a young kid working downtown at the 8th & Congress location straightening ties, and you ‘just knew’ that Congress Avenue was the power center of Austin. Every single man was suited, young and old. Most wore a hat and some wore boutonnieres. The seasons changed back then and the hats went from felt to straw and the suits from dark to khaki in the hottest part of the year.” He goes on to share, “Every banker, lawyer and politician vied to make the published list of Reynolds Penland’s ‘Austin’s Best Dressed’ list. Men like Dorsey Hardeman, Ambassador Edward Clark and Jerry Bell all were stylish guys. Frank Denius ordered nothing but custom suits from the high fashion houses of Louis Roth in Hollywood. The venture capital guys were the last breed to show up and they liked their own style as well. Men such as Jeff Garvey and Frank Krasovic began their now famous love for clothes back in the 80’s.”
In the 1950’s the creation of the large shopping mall came about, complementing the strip malls, where some retail also found a home. Moving into the 1960’s, much of the retail and fashion focus shifted into the suburban areas to satiate the needs and tastes of the rapidly growing Baby Boomer population. Open-air shopping centers and large malls were developed to exemplify a convenient nature, compared to the fast paced, busy downtown shopping. As San Antonio grew and still continues to grow, shopping still remains a robust activity. Some of San Antonio’s best shopping today is found at The Shops at La Cantera featuring the legendary Neiman Marcus, Northstar Mall featuring Saks Fifth Avenue, and the Rivercenter Mall that also has stores which are popular across the country, too.
Throughout the 60’s the procession of shopping malls and urban developments continued in the Austin area, too. The outdoor mall. Hancock Center, came in 1963 with 34 new stores including a modern Sear’s and the state’s first Dillard’s. That was followed by the opening of Highland Mall in 1970, with Foley’s, Joske’s, Scarbrough’s, and other reputable stores. With the spread of retail to the suburbs, Austin still has great shopping across the city. In addition to The Domain, By George, Estilo and the other Second Street boutiques, Barton Creek Mall, and South Congress shops, there are also many privately owned boutiques peppered throughout the city. In 2005, the Downtown Austin Retail Market Strategy was prompted, which urged for the revitalization of the downtown in the area of Congress Avenue and 6th street. An effort to bring more retail shopping into the commercial space is what the strategy is focused on with hopes of re-igniting downtown’s retail glory days. Regardless of where shopping is done now, the retailers have their hard-working, clothes-loving forefathers to thank for paving the road for where retail is today in the region.
Photos courtesy of Ellison Photo Company, the Portal to Texas History Collection, the collection of Neal Douglass, and various private collections.