The label says "Hedy Original.”
The design of the gray cashmere-and-wool skirt suit on display is late 1930s, judging by the sharply darted silhouette and the tiny dressmaker details, the fabric-covered buttons and neatly bound buttonholes. This is one of a handful of designs on display on a third-floor gallery of New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage that were created by Hedy Strnad, who worked in a small women’s tailoring studio in Prague, just before the start of World War II. But they were not fully realized until only a few years ago. In fact, they were only known to the world as a few sketches that survived.
The remarkable story behind "Stitching History From the Holocaust,” an exhibition that began its national tour in Lower Manhattan this week, is a reminder that fashion, no matter whether haute couture or a store-bought dress, tells a far larger story about our history than what people wore. In the recreation of these designs – a proper gray suit, a jauntily printed ensemble, a lavender coatdress with hidden closures – the curators of this exhibition have given life to one designer whose name was otherwise lost to history.
The story begins in 1939, when Paul Strnad wrote to a cousin, Alvin, in Milwaukee, desperate to obtain passage to the United States for himself and his wife in the wake of the Munich Agreement and the onslaught of Nazi Germany. In his letter, he sent along some of Hedy’s sketches, hoping to show their financial independence and to secure work for his wife. Little is known of what happened to the Strnads after that, only that they never escaped.
Those sketches were discovered once again in 1997, when family members found them in a basement and donated them to the Milwaukee Jewish Historical Society along with further correspondence between the cousins; they were then exhibited at the opening of the Jewish Museum Milwaukee. On one note, Hedy signed a handwritten note asking after Alvin’s children. After a visitor suggested the sketches be made into actual clothes, the museum started working to recreate them with the Costume Shop of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, and the results are now on display.
What is most fascinating to see is how accurately they were produced, using vintage zippers and cloth flowers sourced from companies that would have been making the same designs in the 1930s. The designers looked at similar dresses from the period as well to imagine what the backs might have looked like.
Walking through these finished pieces, you can just begin to get a picture of what her store would have been like in those years, and also a haunting image of what was lost. But nothing quite brings designer Hedy Strnad to life as effectively as seeing her name on the label. It is written in cursive in her own hand, a signature taken from one of those last remaining documents.
The exhibit, located at 36 Battery Place in New York, will be on display until August 14. View other stops at stitchinghistory.org.