Hidden Treasure: What does Hollywood know about Susan Jarrett that the rest of Chattanooga has yet to discover? (This article appeared in the February 2010 Edition of the Enigma)
Initially what started as a childhood fascination with fashion and history, Susan Jarrett has caught the eyes of Hollywood and few in the Tennessee Valley realize she is one of Chattanooga’s own.
Jarrett is the founder and owner of Maggie May’s Historical Clothing. While few in Chattanooga may not know for sure who she is, they undoubtedly know her work. The producers of National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets starring Nicolas Cage had Jarrett create a piece of clothing seen in the opening sequence of the movie. Spike Lee’s 40 Acres And A Mule Filmworks also contracted her to make a bonnet for one of their productions as well.
Little did Jarrett know when she was sketching fashion in her notebook during class she would get such calls. With great interest in fashion and History, for which she received her degree. Until a few years ago she was a college instructor until her company began to garner attention. “I loved history of course,” she says. “My love of fashion history has manifested itself in the creation of historical clothing.”
Jarrett began initially making historical clothing for hobbyists and enthusiasts. “The more I researched and the more detail I started putting in my clothes and the more accurate I got with my clothing, the more expensive it got because it took too much time,” she says. The completion of a dress will take a minimum ten to twelve hours.
The finite detail and attention put into creating a costume is what distinguishes a costumer from what Jarrett does. “I’m a costume historian,” she says.
In being a costume historian what Jarrett does is recreate clothing from the past. A general costumer is more interested in the final product and how it will look on stage or under stage lighting whereas a historical costumer creates the outfit period correct. That means using the proper material and proper construction of the clothing. “I do a lot of research on the clothing,” she says. The work she does at Maggie May’s is more or less a museum kind of reproduction.
A majority of those that come calling to Maggie Mays are museums and over the past couple of years Hollywood, individuals and business looking for exact recreation of period pieces. “The thing that really affected me is I’ve out-priced myself out of the hobbyist and enthusiasts market and now am working for museums and people that are looking for that authenticity,” says Jarrett.
While styles and mores have changed over generations and centuries, one thing has always been a constant even in the most puritanical times – the female form. Today’s fashions can accentuate or display a woman’s form through varying necklines, hemlines, fabric and accessorizing. In earlier centuries, while women traditional wore more clothing, their shape was altered to display what many considered the ideal shape, that of an hourglass. Instead of plunging necklines you had corsets that would literally squeeze a woman’s midsection and produce or gave the illusion of an ample bust and fuller hips. During the mid 1800s women were literally if not jumping through hoops, wearing what appeared to be a series of hoops that were worn underneath the dress to achieve the same affect. While it was a little less binding and painful, it still was a lot to lug around to achieve the classic perceived ideal shape. Following World War I as when hemlines rose and necklines started to drop or be altered. And while clothing was getting smaller and smaller at this time women generally still wore a girdle, which is an updated version of the corset but a little less painful to wear. The girdle stayed in vogue until the late 1960s although it remains to be found in department stores today in some form or another.
Color has been an important part of fashion over the generations as well as Jarrett has seen and studied in creating her historical pieces. “In the 1800s everything was kind of pastel white,” she says. “American costume is very much influences prior to about 1950 from France, England and Europe,” she says. Her specific interest is in American costumes.
Prior to the French Revolution it was a flamboyant, gaudy era for clothing Jarrett says. There was a rebellion against that and it was replaces with a simple white with maybe a bit of pastel. “Real classical, real simple Grecian kind of styles,” she says.
“Then we got into the 1860s you have the invention of the color mauve,” Jarrett says. Mauve is a pale lavender lilac color, one in the many ranges of purple. “It’s a really garish, gaudy color,” she says. Bright, bold colors are once again in vogue but by the turn of the century it reverts back to white and more pale, muted colors.
When recreating clothing from a specific time period many factors weigh in on how Jarrett creates the costume. “The color is really, really important. Pattern is really important,” she says. How the fabric is and made all factor in. “It’s all extremely important to the time period we’re working in.”
Jarrett’s work at Maggie May’s goes beyond just clothing. She is also a milliner. She creates the appropriate headgear for that era as well. Through the centuries and up until the late 1960s it was customary for both the man and woman to wear appropriate headwear. The hat was a measure of social status in the past.
While examining her work, it’s obvious that Jarrett has done her research and her attention to detail. But with detail and attention comes cost. “That’s something that’s somewhat difficult to explain to a lot of everyday people about why my prices are what they are,” she says.
Jarrett has also kept a close eye on the closing of the garment district in New York City. Prior to 1960 roughly 90 percent of the world’s garments were produced in New York City. As of 2000 less than 10 percent are.
This affects what Jarrett does at Maggie May’s. The historic costumer says she tries to buy things local. All of her wood buttons come out of what’s left of the garment district and the fabrics come from Pennsylvania. Everything is made at her studio in Chattanooga. “I am proud to say it is American made.”
“One thing I explain to people is that everything I do is individual,” says Jarrett. “It’s more like a work of art. It’s one piece. It’s not like you’re going to get another piece like this.”
While Jarrett may use the same fabric and the design the same, it is never going to be exactly the same as the previous piece. “So everything is unique.”
Maggie May’s Historical Clothing recreates 200 years of fashion, from 1750 to 1950. To delve further into the work of Jarrett and see why museums and Hollywood producers call her go to www.maggiemayfashions.com and explore and take a step back in fashion history.
- Dave Weinthal
| Clothing of yesteryear found on local Web
site (This story appeared in The Times Free Press on
Tuesday, March 6, 2001)
Susan Whitfield hopes she has found a new "stitch" in electronic commerce. After five years of selling reproductions of historical clothing at Civil War re-enactments, Ms. Whitfield, 24, decided it was time to broaden her horizons. She created a Web-based business, www.maggiemayfashions.com, to sell her products online. A year later, Ms. Whitfield's gamble has paid off. She has sold clothing to customers in 25 states, Germany and the United Kingdom.
"I originally only sold the clothes at (local) events," the Hixson resident said. "After I posted by Web site, I was able to reach a whole new audience. There may not be a large market for these type of products (locally), but with the Internet I can find the larger market."
Ms. Whitfield specializes in creating reproductions from 1750 to 1950. Most of her creations have been used for period weddings, Civil War re-enactors, living historians and museums.
Katherine Grava, a resident of Allen, Texas, started attending re-enactments with her husband in 1999. After searching for dresses near her home, she didn't find anything to her liking. She turned to the Internet and found a handful of sites to browse, though she was still left frustrated.
"Many of the dresses weren't authentic or well made," Mrs. Grava said. "When I came across Susan's site, I was very pleased."
Over the past year, Mrs. Grava has bought five dresses from maggiemayfashions.com. Ms. Whitfield custom-makes all of the products to ensure they are tailored for each customer's measurements. It takes one or two days to create a dress.
"The fact I am getting custom-made clothes is phenomenal," Mrs. Grava said. One of the advantages of owning an online business is being able to keep a low number of dresses in stock. Ms.Whitfield makes most of the dresses after they have been ordered. As a result, she has low overhead and needs little space for materials.
"If I opened a shop in Chattanooga, many of the dresses would have to be pre-made," Ms. Whitfield said. "If you add that with the slim chances of someone walking in and buying something on a daily basis, I wouldn't be able to stay in business long."
The only investment Ms. Whitfield has made in the business is the money needed for a domain name and to reserve the Web space needed for the site. The biggest problem Ms. Whitfield has faced is registering her site with Internet search engines. Many, like AltaVista and Netscape, require a yearly fee between $100 to $400 to be included. Once you have signed on, there is no guarantee where a site will be placed among search results.
"If a search brings back 2,000 results, you could be number 1,500 on the list," Ms. Whitfield said. "You pay the same amount as the person on the top, but don't get the same push."
As a result, Ms. Whitfield was able to register with only one search engine and the engine's service is free to many Web sites. Luckily that site was Yahoo.com, one of the most used search engines on the Internet.
"I was so excited when I found out they accepted me," Ms. Whitfield said. "Even though I may be listed with several other sites, every little bit helps."
-Kevin Lusk, Staff Writer