THE NIGHT FASHION ALMOST DIDN’T HAPPEN
In fashion, anything can happen. And something extraordinary happened in 1969 with fashion in Texas. Couture? A potential airline hijacking? High society? All ripped from the headlines, here, in an exciting excerpt from her book, Grace Jones Of Salado, native Austinite Mary-Margaret Quadlander shares the events of a spectacular Austin evening long ago.
Illustrations by Missy Harris
Photography courtesy of Mary-Margaret Quadlander, Betty Wiedeman, and Archival
Over her forty-year reign as the Queen of Texas Fashion, Grace Jones would stage many of the top designer fashion shows at her iconic store, Grace Jones of Salado, or at a luncheon event, and on occasion, Grace and her husband, retired Lt. Col. and businessman Jack Jones, even hosted showings at their beautiful O’Neil Ford-designed home. In one memorable instance, she even presented a fashion show on a built-for-the-occasion runway in the outdoor field behind her store. And although there would be many runway shows that Grace Jones helmed in her inimitable style, there was one evening that topped all others, and it was definitely a night to remember.
In the late 1960s, most fashion shows were held in tea rooms, at luncheons, or one might even be invited to a famous designer’s own showroom, as we remember from films of the collections of Dior, Channel, Balenciaga, or Trigère fashion shows. The models would meander among the guests, giving customers the opportunity to view the fashions more closely. Very little attention was given to the models, as they were mainly viewed as mannequins, unlike today, when models are seen as celebrities. When the Jones’s held fashion shows in their home, as was de rigueur, the models would casually walk among the dinner guests, winding their way through the tables and conversations, attempting to get the attention of a buyer without being obtrusive. It was often uncomfortable for the models as well as the guests. After all, the whole point of the evening was to sell the collections. As a result, an idea occurred to Jones that using her own customers to model the newest collections would be a perfect way to get the attention of the audience, the husbands, as well as pay tribute and showcase her loyal customers.
In the spring of 1969 in Austin, Grace Jones was invited to be the main event for a night, hosting a fundraising fashion show to benefit The Mental Health Association of Austin and Travis County. Everyone who was anyone in the elite social and political circles of Texas was invited to the Austin Country Club on the evening of March 20, for a long-awaited fundraising extravaganza, An Evening With Jean Louis. Normally, an event this big would demand a larger arena, such as one in Dallas, Fort Worth, or Houston. Still, on this night, all of Texas high society were gathered in the Austin Country Club’s ballroom, excitedly waiting for the big evening to begin. It had been sold out for months in advance, even though the tickets were $200 per couple (about $2000 in 2022 dollars). The crowd would be top drawer with Governor and Mrs. Preston Smith, who would attend and be involved since Texas First Lady Ima Mae Smith was the honorary chair of the gala. The Governor chose a polka dot bow tie and polka-dot vest to complete his three-piece suit.
Cactus Pryor, a well-known Native Austin son, television host, humorist, ultimate roaster, dinner speaker, and all-around perfect master of ceremonies, was enlisted to welcome the excited guests. And, although a night of laughs with Pryor could be enough to entice the Texas elite to come together for a night of fundraising, he was only there for the introduction…or so he thought. Grace Jones would provide the actual entertainment for the evening, presenting another one of her legendary fashion shows, on a runway built for the occasion. This time she was specifically featuring the latest collection of the well-known French designer, Jean Louis, of Hollywood.
Having Grace Jones, of Grace Jones of Salado, create the evening’s entertainment of fashion, not to mention seeing the newest collection from Jean Louis, was quite an honor for the Capital City because Louis had been a very important designer since the 1940s. By 1969, when this event occurred, he was a household name. In fact, the designer had been nominated for 14 OscarsÒ in the prior 14 years. He was also an early adopter of fashion sustainability, saying in a pre-event media interview that he believed women should dress according to their lives and wear their clothes for more than one season. Although the key to his success was the simplicity of his elegant gowns, making them as modern today as they were decades ago, his designs were, in fact, quite intricate. In his thirty-year film career during the Golden Age of Hollywood, he worked with some of the most beautiful actresses including Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, Kim Novak, Gene Tierney, Marlene Dietrich, Loretta Young, and Marilyn Monroe. When Jones planned this fashion extravaganza, Louis was her obvious choice as the highlight of the evening.
SENSATIONALLY SAVVY STYLE
In the 1950s, in conjunction with films, Louis began designing costumes for television. Between 1953 and 1961, he created fifty-two dresses for Loretta Young to wear on her successful anthology series, The Loretta Young Show. Women would tune in each week just to see what new outfit Young was wearing at the beginning of every show, as she elegantly descended a staircase or swirled through a grand doorway. In the 1960s, Louis went out on his own as an independent designer developing his own line but was still pursued by his loyal clientele in Hollywood.
In 2016, Julien’s Auctions sold the Louis-designed gown Marilyn Monroe wore when she sang Happy Birthday to President Kennedy for $4.8 million. It was described as a champagne silk soufflé Illusion gown, with a gauze-like silk underpinning to hold the weight of more than six thousand glass beads and sequins. The jewels were so effervescent they appeared to be sewn onto her bare skin. Bob Mackie, well remembered for his design work on TV for stars like Cher and Carol Burnett, illustrated the gown and Jean Louis translated the drawing into his design and creation of Monroe’s beaded sheath. “That dress was designed around when Marilyn did her last movie at 20th Century Fox that was never released, Something’s Gotta Give,” shared Bob Mackie recently in a conversation about the designer. “Jean Louis was very exacting, He was a couture designer in his head, rather than a fashion designer. He could be very intimidating.”
Meanwhile, back in Texas, Grace Jones and Stanley Marcus of Neiman Marcus reigned alone as the king and queen of fashion icons. This spectacular fashion show focusing on Louis’s designs had taken months to prepare, like all of Jones’s shows. But this time, Jones planned for the fashion show to be the focal point of the evening. The models would not be gliding through the dinner and cocktail settings, as in her previous events. This time the models would be walking a runway, with background music and Jones’s descriptions of the garments, requiring the full attention of the audience. Finding suitable models (who would wear a size 6, the then-sample size in fashion), flying them in from New York and Dallas for the fittings, designing the stage and lighting, and writing her speech…Jones was obsessive about this show, knowing that the audience was filled with many of her clientele from all over the state, including the Governor’s wife and wives of the entire Board of Regents for The University of Texas, Austin’s hometown university.
Once again, Jones would invite customers who had modeled for her previously to fill some of the places. In hiring professional models, Elsa Rosborough, model extraordinaire, was the first on her list to be called. Rosborough had a way of commanding the runway. The moment she hit the runway, she captivated the audience. She would spread her arms to their full wingspan, twirl herself on the stage to show the full detail of her garment, all the while landing each turn at the exact corner of the runway. Then, she would prance to the other end, never losing her penetrating eye contact with a particular audience member. Elsa Rosborough was not only a model, but she was also a performer.
Every society couple in the state of Texas was fighting to get a coveted table for the show. There were parties all week leading up to it, and Jones made her appearance at all of them, along with her Salado house guests, Jean Louis and his beautiful wife and a former model, Maggy Louis. This was a very grand event for Austin, a small college town (population 258,000 at the time), and the 400 attendees buzzed with excitement.
The evening before the gala, the Jones’s good friends, Dr. D.J. and Jane Sibley hosted a dinner party for the Louis’s at the Sibley’s newly acquired home, a grand Spanish-style mansion resting in grandeur in historic Old Enfield. Jane Sibley, a social force of her own, dedicating herself to philanthropic causes, such as the Texas Historic Preservation and the Austin Symphony Orchestra, had created a truly eclectic and personal homage to Asian, Native American, and Spanish art in her home. And, always easy to spot at any social event in Austin, she habitually wore her signature buzzard feather poised as an afterthought into her tightly coiffed chignon hairstyle. The Sibley’s home was the perfect backdrop for Jean and Maggy Louis to experience the unique cultural identity of Austin, a town overflowing with intellectual pursuit, political debate, historical significance, and the ambiance of inherited social status.
According to Grace Jones, during the dinner she received a call from Louis’s assistant, Doris Souza in Los Angeles, stating that the fashion collections had left the airport that morning and should be arriving at Austin’s Mueller Airport soon, leaving plenty of time for the transfer to Austin Country Club, where the festivities would occur. There was no need to worry because Jones had planned this event down to the last second. The evening at the Sibley’s was exactly the respite Jones needed from all the details of the upcoming fashion show. The shared evening was fabulous, with great food, sparkling conversation, and wonderful friends. No one thought twice about the imminent arrival of Louis’ fashions, valued at $100,000 (a little over $800,000 in 2022 dollars).
In the middle of their dinner, Jones received a second call…this time from her assistant in Austin, who was calling with some troubling news. The cargo had never arrived as planned. At 11:00 p.m., Jones received yet another call but this time, the caller was frantic. It was unbelievable and inconceivable…the collection was rumored to have been hijacked to Cuba. If it had been hijacked, there was no indication where in Cuba it might be heading. And there was certainly no chance of it landing in Austin in time for the show. This was the main event, and there was absolutely nothing to show. Nothing.
By midnight, Jones was quickly making one phone call after another, attempting to find the missing collection. But at 1:00 a.m., she surrendered to the inevitable reality that the collection was gone, and she had better start looking for a solution.
Grace Jones had been up against more formidable obstacles in her life, honestly, much more formidable with her background as a WWII pilot. True to her nature, she called upon her friends and clients, many of them famous, to help. Anyone who had ever bought Jean Louis collections from her or directly from Jean Louis was now receiving phone calls in the middle of the night. Loretta Young, an avid collector of Jean Louis, received the first call. It was now early morning in Los Angeles, and Young was still asleep. Jones left an urgent message with Young’s household staff, and Loretta immediately returned her call. Of course, she would help and shared, “If you need me, if this is an emergency, I’ll be there myself.”
But there were no direct flights from Los Angeles running then. So, Young hired her own private plane, and with gowns in hand, flew to Dallas, and then hired another plane to take her to Austin. Young then called Katherine Crosby, the Texas-born wife of Bing Crosby, who also owned an extensive collection of Jean Louis fashions. Even though Crosby and her family were preparing for a vacation trip to Mexico and could not attend, she would place the clothes on Bing’s private plane to arrive at 5:30 p.m., if Jones would agree to have someone pick them up. Yes. Yes. Thank you.
Gene Tierney, another famous Hollywood actress, married to Houston oilman Howard Lee, had a great wardrobe of Jean Louis dresses. Jones called her home in Houston to ask if she might loan some gowns for the fashion show since this was a true emergency. Ironically, Tierney and her husband, were in Austin visiting a relative, so she was more than happy to help and had some of her gowns driven in from Houston.
Grace Jones could finally take a breath of relief.
THE SHOW MUST GO ON
That evening, Cactus Pryor was finally informed of the fate of the collection. Could he possibly entertain the audience for longer than he had planned? He took the stage and did what he did best…regaling the audience with one hysterical story after another, giving Jones more time to re-group. The fashion show was rearranged to occur after dinner instead of before.
By now, Pryor had easily been holding his own as the event’s master of ceremonies for over two hours. It was now eight o’clock, and there was no sign of the fashion show. At nine o’clock, Cactus sneaked behind the curtain and quickly returned to the stage. “The bar is open!” Pryor called loudly to the audience and then settled into his most comfortable element, telling one hilarious joke after the other. By midnight the audience was happily smashed, but not one person had left, enjoying Cactus but still in anticipation of the evening’s centerpiece event. Suddenly, the lights in the room went dim, and the audience drunkenly returned to their tables, still laughing uproariously at Pryor.
A spotlight hit the stage, and out walked Grace Jones, who was about to make caviar out of a bad situation and give her audience a night to remember. She and Young had both been backstage preparing the models. Young herself accessorized the models wearing her clothes, styling them as she would wear the gowns.
That night, Jones presented an unimaginable and unforgettable runway show featuring the stunning, albeit acquired, designs of Jean Louis, all worn by Jones’s outstanding models, and loyal clients. How could anyone in the audience complain? But the evening was not over yet…by far. Suddenly, Loretta Young walked out from behind the curtain and walked the runway wearing her own Jean Louis gown. As she approached the staircase up to the higher stage, Jean Louis himself offered his arm and escorted her to the top of the stairs as the room broke out in thunderous surprise and applause. The standing-room-only audience rose to their feet in a roar of appreciation that lasted a full five minutes.
For the next forty years, there would be many other world-renowned designers personally showing their collections to Grace Jones’s customers at her salon in Salado, such as Bill Blass, Geoffrey Beene, Pauline Trigère, Norman Norell, Galanos, Valentino, Oscar de la Renta, Perris, Adolfo, Christian Lacroix, Dior, Karl Lagerfeld, Michael Vollbracht, Adolfo, and Count Sarmi, to name a few. But there would never be another night that ever compared to this night in Austin, conceived by fashion legend Grace Jones, featuring Loretta Young and Jean Louis.
Toward the very end of the evening, Cactus Pryor came back on stage for the live auction of a bright silk organza plaid gown with a tucked bodice and high green sash. The bidding was spirited as Gary Morrison won the gown for his wife, plus a Jean Louis men’s suit, for $1,100 (about $9,000 in 2022 dollars). Jean Louis, unruffled backstage through it all, commented in his French accent soon after the event ended, “Texas women are wonderful. I’ve never known people to rise to a challenge and an emergency so well.”
As luck would have it, the dresses were indeed found, and after the event ended at midnight, the gowns arrived in their boxes, securely unopened, at 12:30 a.m. The high fashion fun would continue since the Grace Jones of Salado patrons were the first Texans to see the complete summer collection upon its arrival over the next few days at her store. And, as fate would have it, fast forward to 1993, and octogenarians Loretta Young and Jean Louis would marry each other to form a very stylish couple for the rest of their lives.
For more information on the book, Grace Jones of Salado, visit GraceJonesOfSalado.com.