Jessica’s style sews fabric of legacy

A PETITE young woman walked into a swish fashion store where two men were talking.

“Excuse me while I attend to this little girl,” the salesman said.

The woman bristled: “I’m not a little girl. I’m a buyer from Stone’s.”

That’s the story Bernard Stone tells to describe his “Auntie Jessie” – Jessica Stone, later Jessica Simon – who became Ballarat’s most famous fashion queen.

“She was certainly a bit of a character,” he said.

A new exhibition at the Ballarat Gold Museum launched this week, celebrates the life of Jessica – designer, fashionista and philanthropist – who built her clothing empire at Stone’s Drapery Store in Bakery Hill in the 1930s and ruled the shop until its doors closed in 1965.

Inside the store hid a luxurious world of satin, silk and brocade. A realm of floor-length ball gowns, elegant hats and soft mink stoles.

Jessica’s personal style was legendary. Her fashion masterpieces even more so.

Val Sarah, who had co-presented the television segment Focus on Fashion with Jessica in the 1960s and 1970s, said she had admired Jessica “tremendously”.

“She instantly knew what would suit a woman, what would suit her style, her personality,” Ms Sarah said.

Girls on a quest for the perfect debutante frock visited Stone’s, which Jessica eventually joined after finishing school.

Beside the rest of her devout Jewish family, Jessica helped sell every type of clothing the strict dress codes of the time demanded.

But only one item drew a steady swam of customers like moths to the flame.

“If you were looking for fashion for the bridal party, you came to Stone’s, and you came to Jessica,” Ms Sarah said.

Business at the bridal salon blossomed despite the eye-popping price tag. While the average yearly wage in 1940 was about £120, Stone’s wedding gowns cost between £400 and £500. Each was stamped with the special label “Your Jessica for Luck”.

Ms Sarah naturally asked Jessica to design her wedding dress – a two-piece creation of milky guipure lace – when she married on New Year’s Eve in 1964.

Ms Sarah pointed to a black and white photograph of her own wedding. A smiling Jessica stood next to her in the grainy picture, flawless in a black ensemble studded with tiny red flowers. Her dark hair was perfectly coiffed beneath a chic ebony hat.

“You can see how petite she was. She was tiny,” she said of Jessica, who was barely taller than her shoulders.

“But she was always beautifully and most appropriately dressed.”

Despite her small stature, Jessica’s own wedding to gold prospector Paul Simon in 1949 was one of the largest Ballarat had ever seen.

Estelle Grinblat, Jessica’s niece and bridesmaid, reportedly said there were so many people the police had to be called.

“The crowd was so dense that she and I had to be virtually carried over their heads to get inside.”

While “Jessica of Stone’s” continued to draw crowds to Stone’s with her dress designs, seamstresses sewed and stitched like tireless worker bees in the upstairs workroom to turn rolls of exquisite fabric into unique creations.

Former Stone’s seamstress Flora Sharpe, who had been one of the youngest employees at 17 years old, said Jessica often sought their fashion advice.

“I can remember once that she couldn’t get into a pair of shoes so she said, ‘oh quick, put these on, stretch them for me’,” Ms Sharpe said, laughing.

Jessica’s quirky nature and endless gusto for fashion were also responsible for one of her most enduring legacies.

More than 20 million people were reported to have watched Princess Margaret marry Antony Armstrong-Jones in 1960 in the first televised royal wedding.

Ms Sharpe said Jessica had been excited about the princess’ silk dress with its cinched waist and full frothy skirt.

“I can remember Jessica coming in on Monday morning saying ‘oh what did you all think?’, full of enthusiasm as she always was.

“She said, ‘we’ll have that (dress) in the window by the weekend’.”

Ms Sharpe recalled she and the other seamstresses worked frantically all week to recreate the royal wedding dress, sewing the tiny buttons and loops onto the cream gown of satin brocade.

The dress was ready for display by Friday night.

But it was not the first time world fashion had caught Jessica’s attention.

Parisian designer Christian Dior had released his “new look” clothing line a couple of years after the end of World War II. The seductive line, which featured tiny waif-like waists and voluminous skirts, caught the attention of the overseas press.

Gold Museum assistant curator Claire Muir said Jessica had brought the clothing line to Ballarat the following year.

“That’s how on-the-ball she was with keeping up to date with the latest fashion trends,” she said.

Ms Muir said the new fashion exhibition aimed to tell the story of a style queen and savvy entrepreneur who became important to the Ballarat community, and remained so until her death at the age of 76 in 1982.

Stone’s Style: Jessica Simon, A Life in Fashion, which is also Ms Muir’s last exhibition at the museum, showcases 13 carefully-selected costumes Jessica had worn, designed or chosen.

While the exhibition features the Princess Margaret wedding gown replica, the outfits on show were merely the fur-trimmings of the collection.

“We do have Jessica’s wedding dress, her own personal wedding dress, but it’s too fragile to put on display for a long period of time,” Ms Muir said.

She said Jessica had also been known for staging wildly successful fashion parades – then known as mannequin parades – to raise money for charity, which culminated in Jessica being awarded the British Empire Medal in 1979. The medal is also on display.

“She was interested in fashion but she was also interested in philanthropic work and very interested in giving back to the community, which I think is a really important part of her story.”

The exhibition will run until March 1. More information can be found on the Sovereign Hill website.

 

This feature article originally appeared on pages 4 and 5 of The Courier newspaper on 29 November 2014.

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