Friday, July 26, 2013

Irene Saltern, Unsung Pioneer of California Design

I'm guessing most readers here have never heard of California apparel designer Irene Saltern. Which is, and you'll agree once you know more about her, very surprising, considering she is widely credited as a pioneer of the California sportswear industry. Other designers who were her contemporaries are more well known, but Ms. Saltern's influence cannot be denied.

Her story is incredibly interesting; she was a true Renaissance woman. She was born Irene Stern in 1911, in Germany. A multi-talented individual, she worked for a short time as a radio journalist and, later, became a seamstress.

Among her neighbors while she was still living in Germany was Albert Einstein, who taught her to sail. Instilled with a lifelong love of sailing, many of her designs were nautical themed. She took fashion classes in Berlin, and when she moved to California with husband Harry Salinger in the late 30s, she became a costume designer for the movies. In the 40s, she was in charge of actresses' wardrobes at Samuel Goldwyn Pictures, and was a contemporary of Gilbert Adrian, who was at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The Sept. 14, 1995, issue of the LA Times quotes her as saying, "If [Gilbert] Adrian was the king of designers, I was one of the princesses." She did the costumes for nearly 40 Hollywood films, including The Call of the Yukon and The Howards of Virginia. She was the favorite designer of dancer Ann Miller and actress Martha Scott.

In the late 40s, Ms. Salinger started designing commercially as "Irene Saltern," and became head designer for Tabak of California, one of the powerhouses of the "California Sportswear Revolution." The influence of Irene Saltern and Lou Tabak on the burgeoning industry was profound. Ms. Saltern designed lines of separates and coordinates jackets, skirts, cigarette slacks, shorts, tops that were sold with hangtags proclaiming they were "a Tabak Tie-in." She also designed classic dresses and suits, with lines that flattered the female figure. Her designs can be worn today and present as stylishly as they did decades ago. And the fabrics she used, particularly her wools and silks, and the workmanship are exquisite.


In addition to working for Tabak, she briefly headed up her own firm, Irene Saltern of California, and worked for other design houses, including Phil Rose and Lanz of California, from which she retired in 1978. In the 60s, she was noted for starting the trend of those big hardware-inspired chunky belts, after a visit to the hardware store! And, after a trip to India, she started creating Indian-inspired designs, which, of course, were hugein the 1960s and 1970s.

Ms. Saltern passed away in 2005 at the age of 94. Her sketches are preserved at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, and both her apparel and sketches are featured in the collections of the Fashion Institute of Technology and the Los Angeles County Museum.

The Reflections of Vintage team pays tribute this week to this unsung pioneer and to the amazing California designers who came after her.

Saltern of California Full-Skirt Butterfly Dress, sold by Vintage Baubles:


Cute Vintage 1960s Pink Wool Knit 3 Piece Outfit Tabak B34 W25 from After Dark Vintage:

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Vintage 80s Does 40s California Designer Karen Alexander Tropical Caribbean Vacation Novelty Print Sunshine Yellow Day Shirt Dress - Size XS to S, from Catseye Vintage:

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Vintage 50s 60s Tabak of California Mad Men Blue Wool Pencil Skirt Suit, XS Sm, from Vintage Baubles Too:


Vintage 80s Does 40s California Designer Foxy Lady Nautical Black and White Day Shirt Dress - Size XS, from Catseye Vintage:

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Vintage Taupe Silk Tabak Blouse Sz 10 B38 from After Dark Vintage:

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Lynda Lawrence Salinger said...

Thank you so much for your tribute to Irene, who was my mother-in-law. I am currently preparing her personal papers, photos, movie and commercial sketches to become the Irene Saltern Special Collection at the University of California Irvine Libraries. We hope there will be an exhibition next spring devoted to her work.
Lynda Salinger

Anne, Vintage Baubles said...

Lynda, I am so happy you found this blog I wrote. I am the person to whom you sold Irene's wonderful estate collection--and I thank you for much of the background information in this blog. I still have the majority of the items, and was going through boxes this week. Once again, I find myself incredibly impressed with the quality of the construction, design, and fabrics!