Seidenbach’s: Taking a Walk on the Style Side


FASHIONABLE MEMORIES: Monica Brown Heins tours the Seidenbach’s Specialty Store Exhibit at Tulsa Historical Society which is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesdays through Saturdays to the end of January 2010.

AYN ROBBINS for GTR Newspapers

“As very small children my sister Cynthia and I were taken downtown to Seidenbach’s when we needed new shoes. We didn’t know that Seidenbach’s was our father’s store.” – Carol Seidenbach Leach (from Journal Entry at Tulsa Historical Society)

Carol Seidenbach Leach lived “the life” much like the fictional character Eloise in the popular Kay Thompson/Hilary Knight series of children’s books, except that her Plaza Hotel was Seidenbach’s Specialty Department Store. It was graced with an exquisite four-story gothic façade and million-dollar interior modeled on an open Italian villa (ca. 1926-1963) by her late father, Joseph Leslie Seidenbach. The walls were hand-carved in solid Bedford stone. Draperies were made of imported damask. One can only imagine the informal groupings and deep upholstered chairs in red, yellow and vivid blue against black American walnut polished to a sheen several times a day.

Carol and her younger sister, Cynthia, knew all the staff by name. She recalls Miss Frakes, of the second-floor women’s designer section, “who could perform miracles.” There was Miss Sims who fitted the girls in the children’s department in pinafores and frocks that graced the pages of fashion magazines. The girls also modeled for the store and walked the runway in beautiful dresses and Mary Jane patent leather shoes.

Miss Cunningham was the cosmetics expert and a mirror image of glamor girl actress Betty Hutton, so that is what the sisters would call her. Perhaps the most Eloise-like of their antics was running the elevator for red-headed Miss Alma, which was quite a feat considering they had to align the opening door perfectly with the floor onto which patrons would arrive or depart. Technology had not advanced to the point of merely pressing a numbered button.

Gracing the walls of the exhibit are numerous photos and reproductions of vintage Seidenbach advertising in what are today still considered the top fashion magazines such as Vogue, Town & Country, Harper’s Bazaar, and Mademoiselle.
Carol Seidenbach Leach is sharing that golden era through photographs, renderings, and vintage designer couture from the collection of her late mother, Clare Seidenbach, which has been preserved and now lent to the Tulsa Historical Society. It includes evening gowns, suits, dresses, shoes, gloves, hats, and purses.

My friend, Monica Brown Heins of Houston (originally Tulsa), was visiting, so we took the tour together on a recent Indian summer afternoon in Green Country. She mentioned it could easily be an exhibit at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. The encasements reveal impeccable attention to detail, with ebony and gold mannequins in one display featuring a magnificent gold satin Christian Dior gown bearing the Seidenbach label, and a green satin dress worn by Clare in Tulsa Little Theater’s production of “The Marriage Go-Round.”

“Finding mannequins small enough to fit the couture collection was our greatest challenge,” said Maggie Brown, Director of Education and Exhibits.

Also worthy of mention is the exquisite hat collection. Hats are displayed in all shapes, designs, and colors from navy and white polka dots to arrows, bright yellow petals, and a slightly bizarre reproduction of a Christian Dior design recreated for Seidenbach’s by designer Lucylle Smith Gilbert that features a brown felt skullcap with a sextet of devilish fabric horns. My favorite was a soft creamy beige wool hat with an ostrich feather by Lily Dache.

A point I have made since the inception of Trendz nearly two years ago is that fashion repeats itself as surely as history. The most exquisite gowns worn by the world’s greatest and most fashion-forward actresses on Oscar night are often vintage couture from the likes of Christian Dior, Coco Chanel, and Yves St. Laurent-and which may have, in years gone by, graced the windows of Seidenbach’s.

The Seidenbach exhibit has a limited run until January 2010. It is a small, intimate collection that can be savored in an hour, much like the fine ladies might have done when window-shopping was a social event in Tulsey Town’s fashion Mecca on Main Street. Young folks interested in careers in fashion and design will enjoy a visceral experience not found in a textbook.

The Tulsa Historical Society is located at 2445 S. Peoria Ave., just south of the Tulsa Rose Garden. The Seidenbach exhibit is on the second floor and open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. Donations are accepted, but admission is free. For further information, call (918) 712-9484.
Ciao for now.

Updated 09-29-2009

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  1. — Dolores    Sep 22, 10:35 PM    #
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