Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy
Apparel, Events and Hospitality Management
The Industrial Revolution allowed for the mechanized production of mass amounts of consumer goods including apparel. The marketplace flooded to a frenzied pace beginning in the mid nineteenth century. As such, stores evolved from the dry goods environments of the early nineteenth century to become larger in scale; the department store was born. Many historians such as William Leach have concluded that department stores contributed to the development of a distinctive American culture built upon consumption. Not only were goods available but they also were presented to consumers in a compelling aspirational environment. Shopping became the American pastime and women in particular found new social opportunities in the public sphere with hours spent in stores.
One such store that developed in this era was Bonwit Teller founded in 1895. Bonwit's was executed on the scale of a department store, but founder Paul Bonwit chose to only offer the best most luxurious fashions for a female only clientele. As a woman's place, Bonwit's particularly benefited from female leadership. This dissertation examined the history of Bonwit Teller which up until this time has remained somewhat obscure, but also documented the stories of two female presidents of the store Hortense Odlum (1934-40) and Mildred Custin (1965-70).
Without previous work experience and little education Hortense Odlum would come to Bonwit's during the Great Depression when the business was on the brink of failure. Although Odlum came to her position through her wealthy husband's acquisition of the company, she quickly proved herself a formidable leader and savvy businessperson. Women continued to shop during the Depression; however, price was a mitigating factor. Odlum worked to offer quality, fashionable attire across all price points from the best couture to the most sensible day suiting. In doing so she created new departments to accommodate her pricing strategy including the Salon de Couture, Rendezvous, Debutante and College Girls. Taking her cues from what she expected as a female shopper she also established a beauty salon in the store. To attract a male customer during the holiday season she established the 721 Club that made shopping for the women in their lives easier. Odlum also connected with her female customers and established a Consumer Advisory Committee. By the time Odlum left Bonwit's in 1944 she had tripled the volume of the store and planned the company's first branch location in White Plains, New York.
Twenty-one years later Mildred Custin became the second female president of the store. The 1960s were a period of rapid cultural change. During this time, Custin introduced European designers such as Pierre Cardin, and AndrÃ© CourrÃ¨ges to the American market and domestically she placed Calvin Klein's first major order. Custin introduced menswear to Bonwit's previously women's only assortment and subsequently fueled the spread of the Peacock Revolution in the United States. As a woman with a gentle voice, but stylish clear vision, she embraced fashion and styles of the era and led Bonwit Teller through a period of phenomenal success.
This research is important, as aside from scholarship regarding Dorothy Shaver and her career at Lord and Taylor, documentation of female leadership in retail is limited. Shaver is documented as the first female president of a major American retail firm and yet Odlum preceded her by ten years. Also, Custin started to work in the fashion retail business as early as 1928. The history of women is often abbreviated and in the case of leadership in American retail, practically ignored. This research attempted to document two of the assuredly countless untold stories and contributions of women in retail.
Michael Eugene Mamp
Mamp, Michael Eugene, "Female presidents of Bonwit Teller: Hortense Odlum (1934-40) and Mildred Custin (1965-70)" (2014). Graduate Theses and Dissertations. 13733.