The History of Vanity Fair Lingerie

For those who love vintage Vanity Fair lingerie, here’s a look at the company. It’s long, but then with 108 years of history, it’s as brief as it can get. *wink* has a history of VF Corporation, from which we can learn the following:

The company’s beginnings can be traced to the year 1899, when eight men formed the Reading Glove and Mitten Manufacturing Company in Reading, Pennsylvania, and began producing and selling knitted and silk gloves. Of the founders, two men had previous experience in the garment industry as hosiery manufacturing executives, while a third, John Barbey, was a brewer and banker and controlled the company’s financial operations. After 12 years of slow growth, Barbey purchased his partners’ interests in the company in 1911. The following year, Barbey’s son John Edward (known as J.E.) joined the firm as vice-president, and in 1913 the company’s name was changed to Schuylkill Silk Mills.

In 1914 the company expanded into the manufacture of silk lingerie, and after three years of successful sales, the Barbeys decided to conduct a contest to find a brand name for their lingerie line. The winner received a $25 prize for the name “Vanity Fair.” With hopes of establishing a national reputation for the company’s merchandise, the Barbeys launched an extensive advertising campaign that emphasized the superior quality and style of Vanity Fair lingerie. This direct-to-the-consumer approach was considered innovative in that time period, because most other lingerie was of mediocre quality and was sold without brand names primarily through jobbers. The Barbeys’ campaign was successful, and as the Vanity Fair brand name became more well known, the company once again changed its name to Vanity Fair Silk Mills, Inc. in 1919.

By the early 1920s, the rising success of the lingerie product line prompted Vanity Fair to discontinue its glove manufacturing operation and devote itself exclusively to the business of making lingerie. J.E. Barbey was named general manager of the company in 1931 in addition to his position as vice-president. Union organizing activities in the Reading area in the 1930s prompted Vanity Fair to open a new factory in 1937 in Monroeville, Alabama, in the union-unfriendly South. J.E. Barbey was known for his antiunion views and did not want to run a unionized factory. The Reading plant remained in operation though not unionized, but after a new wave of organizing actions arose following the end of World War II and two unsuccessful attempts were made to unionize the plant, it was closed for good in 1948.

(I’d like you all to remember Monroeville, Alabama — just tuck the name and year in your head somewhere for now as we return to the history.)

Upon his father’s death in 1939, J.E. Barbey assumed the presidency of Vanity Fair, a position that he held for the next quarter century. During that time, he led the company through turbulent times, such as the economic changes that came with World War II. In 1941 the war brought about an embargo on silk, and the company began using rayon in the production of its lingerie. (The silk embargo also led the company to drop the word “Silk” from the official corporate name in March 1942.) Throughout the rest of the 1940s, Vanity Fair perfected the use of other new types of lingerie fabrics and subsequently introduced products made from a nylon tricot material in 1948.

These innovations changed the face of the lingerie industry. Nylon tricot was soon considered to be an ideal lingerie fabric because of its strength, wearing power, elasticity, and ease-of-care features. Its use also enabled the company to produce lingerie with a variety of fashionable features and in many popular colors. As a result, in 1950 Vanity Fair became the first lingerie manufacturer to receive the Coty Award for Design.

The Coty American Fashion Critics’ Awards are the “Oscars” of the clothing world, and were started by the fabulous Eleanor Lambert, who also brought the world The Best Dressed List.

It’s easy to understand why they were given the award. Vanity Fair was the first to use live underwear models. J.E. Barbey himself just loved beautiful things and even designed the lingerie. Because he did so love beauty, he and Vanity Fair moved beyond white and pink and introduced the world to such fancy things as leopard and mermaid prints.

In 1951 Barbey took his company public and just five years later, in 1956, he died. That was the end of Barbey leadership at the company.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Vanity Fair started drifting towards other apparel items and even while buying-out other lingerie companies, Vanity Fair became VF Corporation to show they’re not just intimate apparel. I could spend hours pontificating the hazards of publicly held companies at least as far as the impacts on mission go, but I’ll stick with Vanity Fair.

Vanity Fair Corporation continued to add other apparel companies to its holdings, and now VF Corporation doesn’t even have an intimates division. It’s true!

Back in January, they sold off not only the Vanity Fair label but Lily of France, Vasarette, Bestform and Curvation to Fruit of the Loom (a unit of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.) for $350 million. According to this article, “This group had relatively low margins and served a rather mature consumer, quite different from the Vans customer as well as other brands V.F. is focusing on. The sale proceeds are expected to be used for buying back shares and more companies.”

Wouldn’t Barbey just roll-over in his grave.

This brings me back to the Vanity Fair factory in Monroeville, Alabama. (I did ask you to remember that!) In an article I could only find in Google cash George Thomas Jones of The Monroe Journal writes of the excitement of the new business:

In 1937, in Monroe County, a bright light began to beam brightly when a new industry with great promise came to our town. Vanity Fair Silk Mill (or just “the silk mill” as it was first commonly called) not only provided much-needed employment for women, but gave hope for rapid expansions into a gigantic enterprise. It was a question mark at first, but one that would be answered affirmatively in the first month of the following year.

Proof came when the headline of an early January issue of The Monroe Journal stated, “Vanity Fair Silk Mill gives contract for first expansion.”

It would consist of an additional several thousand feet of floor space to include a new office on the front and enlargement of the original building with space for several looms and machines for winding silk thread.

This good news did not fall on deaf ears among city officials and civic- minded organizations. In appreciative recognition, the Monroeville Chamber of Commerce, headed by President Loxley Dees, sponsored an elaborate event celebrating the first anniversary of their opening. Again, The Monroe Journal headlined, “Big Day in Monroeville June 21.” And, that it was.

J.E. Barbey himself was there for that event. And what’s left today?

Well, on the 9th of this month Vanity Fair (as part of Fruit of Loom now) announced it would be cutting 210 of its employees. More specifically, and ironically, this is the cutting department.

Company officials said the above actions were necessary to better position the company to compete with textile and apparel imports from China and the Far East.

“I think we’ve all kind of known that the cutting plant — even though it goes against anything I want to hear — would likely be going,” said Sandy Smith, director of the Monroeville Area Chamber of Commerce. “It’s part of a disturbing trend in the apparel industry to send operations off shore.

And that’s the truth. Virtually no apparel is made in the US anymore. Along with the cheaper workers come the cheaper looks — and then they wonder why the sales plummet.

So the Vanity Fair we knew is gone. Some might say it’s been long gone. But with those of us who love the lingerie, Barbey’s dreams and fashions live on.

Photo credits: Beautifully engraved certificate from Vanity Fair Mills (printed in 1969) with a vignette of the Vanity Fair logo, via Scripophilly; Pretty blue Vanity Fair gown via; others obtained from ebay sales pages.

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