A Sparkling Vintage Life

Down to Business: Dressing for a Job Interview in the 1920s

kimbrough costume One of the more enjoyable bits of research for my novel included a hilarious memoir written by Emily Kimbrough about her first job working at Marshall Field and Company, which I read to get a feel for what it was like to work at Field’s in the 1920s. Some of you  might remember Emily Kimbrough from Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, coauthored with Cornelia Otis Skinner, about their youthful adventures in Europe. That book was eventually made into a movie.

As Emily remembered it, “In November [1923] we were back in America, I in Chicago because I lived there, and she in Chicago because she had a part in a play. The play was called Bristol Glass and it was produced at the Blackstone Theater. Cornelia was an actress, and I, as far as I could see, was going to be nothing at all.”

With her parents’ support, Emily applied for a job at Field’s through a family friend. Completely untutored in the ways of business, here is Emily’s account of how she dressed for her job interview, from the memoir titled Through Charley’s Door:

“I had selected for my interview a dress I had made in Paris. I had made only one and it had turned out to be unusual. This was largely due to the fact that I had selected a material, for reasons not clear to myself, that was, I think, designed for a couch covering–heavy velour with a raised pattern, in dull gold. My intention had been to copy a model I’d bought at a sale of Jenny’s. I’d laid the Jenny dress on top of the material and sheared around it, but no one had ever explained about seams and making allowances for them. When the seams of my dress were sewn, I could get into the garment only easing it down over my figure, as if I were putting a case on an umbrella. The only adornment I’d permitted was a belt I’d bought at the Galeries Lafayette. It was of heavy metal representing silver, studded with large, very imitation turquoises. Since my shape at that time was very akin to that of an umbrella, it afforded no natural resting place for the belt. Loops had proved to be impractical because the weight of the belt sagging on them pulled out the seams at those points where the loops were sewn, and each restitching of the seams made the dress a little tighter. Left unsupported, the belt, without any warning, would coast rapidly to the ground, shackling me.

“I had learned to forestall this ignominy by inserting a thumb  under the belt and resting my hand on one hip. Since this was the position affected by the models I had seen parading in the Salon of a big dressmaker where I had been taken once by a stylish friend, I had quite a fancy for the stance, even unprompted by necessity. I told myself in the mirror that walking this way made me look very blase.

“I had not yet found an occasion ripe for displaying the walk nor the dress to my parents. But applying for a job at Marshall Field’s seemed to me a very ripe occasion.

“The dress had no sleeves, because I did not know how to make them, but I was happy in the addition to my costume of very short gloves. The combination of short or no sleeves and short gloves had just come into style in Paris. I hoped to surprise Marshall Field’s with it.

“The hat that accompanied this costume was of golden velvet with a dark brown ostrich plume curled round the crown. I’d bought it in Paris at a little shop not far from our pension and, encouraged by the proprietress, added a veil, cream color with large brown spots. I tied this very tight over my face, because it seemed to me that to have my eyelashes caught in its meshes was seductive. The end of my nose, however, caught the brunt of this pressure, and carried for some time after the veil was removed a conspicuously indented ring.

“Over this ensemble I was forced to wear to Field’s my old muskrat coat, but I planned to leave this at the checking counter immediately inside the Washington Street entrance to the store. It did not occur to me that Mother would not like the costume; I was only afraid she might consider it too dressy for 8:30 A.m., a point of view I held to be old-fashioned.”

More about Miss Kimbrough’s interview to come!

10 Responses to Down to Business: Dressing for a Job Interview in the 1920s

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    Marcia Whetsel says:

    This reminds me of how I used to dress when I went to San Francisco. (didn’t apply for a job there and I didn’t own a muskrat coat, and didn’t have my dresses made in Paris). I must be getting old although I don’t remember the 20’s or 30’s but I guess I heard enough about them to relate. It is very nostalgic.

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    Jennifer Rova says:

    What a hilarious section of what seems to be a good book to read for either research or pure pleasure. I will track down both books you mentioned.

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    Anna Goodwin says:

    Wow! Very cute. It reminds me of a picture of my husband’s mother. She worked for Macy’s in the Bay area for many years. She just turned a hundred and is going strong.Great research for what sounds like a great book.

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    Karen Gates says:

    This is a hoot….. the interview process for my current position involved 3 separate interview trips. Naturally, each had to have its own ensemble of straight-laced, serious, prim and proper dress and behavior. Of course, none of the above describe or suit me particularly well. As our heroine chose an interesting dress, I bought new shoes. I found out they were too big when the recruiter decided to take me on a tour of the facility. Fortunately, he could be easily amused by my self-deprecating remarks and my awkward gait. I have not worn them since though I assure you, they are quite stylish… just like Miss Kimbrough’s dress…

  • I remember Miss Kimbrough from my days at Field’s. She worked up in the advertising department and used to visit the sales floor now and then to ask if we wanted any certain products promoted in the newspaper ads. She was nice and friendly, but her interview outfit sounds outrageous. When I interviewed with Mrs. Carlson at Field’s in 1925, I wore a blouse, a sweater, and a skirt. The sweater was a mistake, as the day turned out to be a hot one and the store did not yet have one of those modern air-cooling systems. I worried about having sweat stains on my blouse. Mrs. Carlson told me that employees wore only dark colors, like black or navy, so I’m sure that was the last time Miss Kimbrough wore that ensemble to work (or anywhere else, I hope–it sounds positively ghastly!)

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    Diedre says:

    This was such a fun post to read! I was hanging on every word – especially the ones at the end that say there is more about her interview to come… But I don’t see any more. Where is the rest of the story? Are you going to make me read the book? 🙂

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