It would be difficult to say what has been the highlight of the career of Hess’ fashion director, Gerard “Gerry” Golden. There were many of them. But March 3, 1967 was to be close.
That morning, New York Times readers had plenty of news to choose from that day. The Vietnam War was at its height, and it seemed like former Attorney General Senator Robert F. Kennedy was posing as a tough White House suitor with incumbent President Lyndon Johnson. Returning to page 29, the entertainment section, Hello Dolly was going strong with Martha Raye leading the way and there was a box with oversized letters that said “WHAT! HAVE YOU NOT EVEN SEEN THE MAN FROM LA MANCHA ONCE?
But Golden’s attention must have been riveted on the article on page 30. “Hess of Allentown Shows Imports,” read the headline. Under the signature of Times fashion writer Bernadine Morris was an account of the latest fashions Golden had brought back from Europe.
“Prices are dropping in the latest importation of sewing assembled in Europe by Hess department store in Allentown, Pa.,” The article began. “An Antonio del Castillo crystal beaded evening dress costs $ 7,500 to $ 1,500 less than last season’s more expensive style, also a Castillo. But the reduction is not significant according to Gerard (Gerry) Golden, fashion director of the store. “Summer clothes are always a little cheaper”, he observed yesterday before presenting the first presentation of the latest European import fashions in New York at the Americana Hotel “, which hosted many celebrities of the time during that decade, including the Beatles.
Morris went on to note that this was Golden’s 48th fashion trip to Europe. The day before, the dresses had been previewed in Pennsauken, New Jersey, at a dinner for 2,500 women. Over the next four months, Golden will host another 250 shows for women’s groups in civic organizations in eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey. They would also be showcased daily at Hess’s Patio restaurant and displayed in the store’s floor-to-ceiling windows, artistically staged by Hess vice president of design Wolfgang Otto. “The average housewife has been influenced by television. She’s not interested in daytime wear or if an outfit has welt seams or baggage seams, she wants the excitement, ”Golden added. About 75 percent of the collection was Italian and much of the rest French. But, according to Morris, Golden had also included designer clothing from Africa and the Near East.
Bringing fashions from other often overlooked countries had been Golden’s hallmark. He had been doing this since his beginnings as a fashion director for Hess’s. They were more affordable than Couture from Europe and so introduced it to Americans who might never see it otherwise. This Times article was exactly the sort of thing Max Hess liked to see promoting his store. Glamor and elegance and a touch of the world outside of Lehigh Valley made his store unique. This is what Golden has managed to bring to his 24 years with Hess. The fact that a fashion director plays an important role in today’s emerging world of European fashion has revived the store’s image both in Lehigh Valley and abroad. According to a source, Hess insisted the store be listed as having outposts in London, Paris and Rome. They might have been nothing more than a phone on a desk, but they were there.
Looking at Gerard “Gerry” Golden’s youth, one would not have guessed that he would have had an interest in fashion. Born in Pittston, Luzerne County, he was the son of Martin A. Golden III and Florence Golden. He had a brother, Martin. After attending Bucknell University, where he trained as an engineer, he was employed as treasurer and sales manager for the Lenox Manufacturing Company of Catasauqua. During World War II, he served with Army engineers in the Pacific as a first lieutenant, receiving several citations for his service.
In 1947 Golden went to work for Hess as a fashion headwear buyer. According to the recollection of a long-time former Hess employee, the story was that Max Hess had seen Golden buying women’s hats for the store. Something about his technique impressed Hess, or so it is rumored, and he instantly decided to give Golden a chance by sending him on a shopping trip to Japan. Hess had a reputation for making decisions on the spot, and the trip to Japan was apparently Golden’s big break. Even though this country was just beginning to emerge from WWII, it was a success. “He became the first American buyer to introduce a high fashion collection of designer originals in the East,” the New York Times noted. This was followed by trips to Greece and Turkey to return, according to the Times, “with the first collection by designers from these countries to be shown in the United States.”
Golden and Hess were both fortunate enough to have come during this time in postwar America. According to art and culture writer Louis Menand in his recent book “The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War”, the years 1945 to 1973 were a unique period during which the culture has crossed the transatlantic world. From the existentialism of philosophers in Paris to the abstract expressionism of artists in New York, ideas have flourished. Not everyone was comfortable with it. At the time, Time magazine called abstract expressionist artist Jackson Pollack “Jack the Dripper” for his famous drip paintings. Couture was also influenced by the new style of the “free world”. Even Hollywood has entered the scene with movies set in the fashion world like “Fancy Free” from 1955 with Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire and “Designing Woman” from 1957 with Lauren Bacall and Gregory Peck. Hess and Golden in their own way took advantage of bringing that international fashion sense to the Lehigh Valley.
It was in 1952 that Golden made its first major foray into the world of European fashion by bringing Elsa Schiaparelli to Hess to exhibit her newly created lingerie garments. In truth, Schiaparelli had passed her prime as a fashion designer. Originally from Rome, she had lived in America after fleeing her aristocratic family. She returned to Paris and made a name for herself in the 1920s and 1930s with perhaps her most famous client being Wallace Warfield Simpson, aka the Duchess of Windsor. Others included movie stars Greta Garbo, Katherine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, Vivien Leigh and Ginger Rogers, among others. At the same time, Schiaparelli also followed American department stores, bringing dresses to the upper middle class market.
If the American women of Lehigh Valley and Allentown knew anything about European fashion, Schiaparelli was the name they knew. When she came to Allentown, it drew a lot of people to Hess, bringing with it the romanticism of Parisian fashion. But Golden was not only keeping an eye on the past but also looking to the present. In 1947, Parisian designer Christian Dior released the longer “New Look” dresses that raised eyebrows and even hems. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some GIs returning from WWII preferred their wife and girlfriend’s shorter skirt length to where she was. But Paris had spoken. Dresses reflecting this “New Look” style were quickly available from Hess.
Apparently the most important thing for Golden in the 1950s was to encourage emerging Italian fashion designers. Since the 19th century, the fashion was Paris. But there were a lot of talents in Italy whose work he wanted to encourage. Among those he first contacted – although not Italian, but based in Rome – was Irene Galitzine. From the Galitzines, a Russian noble family at the time of the Revolution, they fled to Rome. After studying fashion with the Italian designer Sorelle Fontana in 1946, she opened her workshop in Rome.
Golden met Galitzine in 1955 and suggested that she come to Allentown, which she did that year to show off her designer originals. Her most popular item was her so-called “palazzo pajamas,” a type of silky evening pants that takes its name from the Palazzo Pitti in Florence where they were first introduced. Later, in the words of the New York Times, “his living room on Via Venato was where DuPonts and Fords clashed for the first crack at his creations.” Galitzine did not forget Hess and returned there several times, notably in 1963. She then counted Jacqueline Kennedy and Elizabeth Taylor among her clients.
In the 1960s, Golden appeared on seasonal local television specials. Obviously, expensive designer fashion items were not within the reach of most Hess customers. But that was apparently Golden’s and by extension Hess’ point of view. They would take the shoppers into the store and once there they would buy something.
The sale of the store in 1968 and the death of Max Hess, 57, the same year, ended the goals he and Golden shared.
On February 16, 1971, the Morning Call announced the death of Gerry Golden at his brother’s home in Catasauqua after an illness of several months. He was 55 years old.