Mother of invention: Augusta Allen & the Woodstock Dress

Augusta Allen with her daughter Ruth Brown (in Woodstock Dress).

Augusta Allen with her daughter Ruth Brown (in Woodstock Dress).

In her later years, Augusta Allen’s daughter could still recall the whirring of her mother’s sewing machine echoing throughout the house well into the early morning hours. She could see her also, working at the kitchen table, painstakingly laboring over the intricacies of what had become known as the Woodstock Dress. Less was said of the reasons behind the work. Perhaps it was embarrassment. Though a strong and creative women in her own right, Allen’s popular dress originated not out of a love for fashion design; rather, basic economics would serve as its midwife. To put it simply, the family needed the money that her dresses brought in.

From the outside looking in, financial concerns would seem to have been the least of Allen’s worries in the 1920s. The family’s grand home atop a hill in Woodstock spoke of a well-heeled family who had found a comfortable place within the thriving art colony. For Augusta, in fact, Woodstock was a long way from the Ohio wilderness where, as a young girl, she honed her many skills.

Arriving in Ohio in a covered wagon, a young Augusta worked with her father to carve a farm out of the forest that surrounded them. She would recall “holding onto a crosscut saw on trees so big she could not see her father on the other side.” Raised in the log cabin that they built, the meals she and her mother cooked consisted of the deer and other game that her father shot. Living near what she described as the “Ohio swamps,” Allen would remember in later years how she and family members would suffer from the “ague” or malaria and be forced to take a natural form of quinine to ward of fever and chills.

Having married early, only to be widowed with two young sons a few years later, Augusta would eventually meet and marry Willard Allen, then a prominent Toledo businessman and aspiring artist. In the early years of the 20th century, Willard had built an extremely successful career in both publishing and manufacturing. Having founded the Morning Daily News Company in Los Angeles, he later moved to Toledo in 1898 and began the Allen Manufacturing Company. Employing more than 100 workers at its height, the company, according to a Toledo business journal of the day, gave “its attention to the manufacturing of such specialties as all variety of bath apparatus.”

It was, however, ill health and a timely visit by the artist Birge Harrison to Allen’s stylized turn-of-the-century home in Toledo that ultimately brought the Allens east to Woodstock. Harrison, who had served as the first director of the Arts Students League in Woodstock, filled Willard with news of the fledgling art colony. He spoke of the creative spirit that was on the rise in the small Catskill Mountain town and urged him to become a part of it. Possessing a lifelong desire to seriously explore his art, it was an appeal that Allen could not resist.

Upon arriving in Woodstock in 1913 with family in tow, Allen immediately began construction of a new home atop what is now Hillcrest Avenue. As the spacious three-story home rose in a village where most artists were content converting old barns into living space, size alone made Allen’s new home one of the more impressive structures in town. Perched on a hill at a time before tree growth would obstruct the view, the Allen home offered a clear vista of the village below and, across the way, Overlook Mountain.

Not content, Allen soon began to construct an equally large structure next door. The new building would become known as Allencrest and would serve as a guesthouse to tourists and visiting artists. During the height of the Depression, Allencrest would also host early classes conducted by Roosevelt’s National Youth Administration Resident Craft Center, a WPA program championed by Eleanor Roosevelt that originally constructed the current home of the Woodstock School of Art on Route 212.

As the nation’s economic tide began to shift in the late 1920s, the Allens, like many who had invested in the promise of the stock market, faced the stark realization that their finances were in jeopardy. In addition, though he was considered a fine landscape artist, sales of Willard’s artwork languished. While there are family rumors of an increasing reliance on alcohol to stem the effects of ill health, luck also turned against them when the large hotel in the heart of Woodstock burned to the ground. At the time, many of Willard’s paintings were on exhibit within the hotel and were lost to the flames. As her world began to unravel, Augusta reached back to the self-sufficiency that had characterized her early childhood. Necessity called for the treadle of her sewing machine to move with more urgency.

Today, when most people think of fashion in relation to Woodstock, tie-dyed everything and perhaps the image of a Granny dress might spring to mind. And yet, long before Woodstock gave its name to an entire generation, Augusta Allen began crafting a dress that a different generation of Woodstock women would embrace as a representation of their own time.

The Woodstock Dress was indeed unique. Having first designed the pattern in 1917, Augusta would begin serious production of the dress in the 1920s as family finances dwindled to the point that even the cost of coal began to move beyond their reach. Made from cotton prints or solids, sometimes using organdy for the sleeves, the dresses were soon in high demand. With bodices carefully fitted by the use of darts, the skirt was cut on the bias and pieced together so that it was full and swinging. Crafted with uniquely large buttons and handmade buttonholes, sleeves were full and puffed as necklines varied from scoop to V-neck to best flatter the wearer.

Each dress was adorned by row upon row of bias tape sewn around the sleeves and the bottom of the skirt. Beyond being decorative, the bias tape gave shape and form to the sleeves, as well as weight and swing to the skirts. Made for women of any age (she would also make a distinct version for children), her perfectly fitted construction offered a dress suitable for varying body shapes and, as a result, the dresses came to represent something distinctly Woodstock for all local women.

Offered in various colors and patterns, the Woodstock Dress could be worn for a variety of occasions. It could, for example, be a casual, everyday garment worn to the post office or to the market. So too was it suitable for social occasions, concerts and plays. The dress became a favorite of women within the art colony and was also worn, in the 1930s, by many of Woodstock’s well known Cheats and Swings square dancers during numerous exhibitions. One such performance, as legend has it, was before President Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor at their Hyde Park home. As the evening progressed and generous amounts of spirits were consumed, two members of the group found themselves upended in the Roosevelt swimming pool. Embarrassment would turn to praise a short time later, when, on a passenger ship bound for Europe, the Woodstock Dress won First Prize in an onboard fashion contest.

Assisted by her daughter, the late Ruth Brown, who began her apprenticeship by crafting the handmade buttonholes, Augusta Allen would eventually expand her offerings beyond the now-popular dress. During the bacchanalian days of the Maverick Festivals in Woodstock, where wardrobe choices went from the bizarre to the overly dignified, Allen crafted a variety of costumes for festivalgoers, as well as for various balls held in Woodstock. Popular also were her Tyrolean skirts, blouses and quilted jackets with silver buttons. Next to her dress, however, Allen’s simple, gently gathered aprons found themselves in the most demand.

Each Saturday on the Woodstock Village Green, locals and visitors alike would find Allen on hand selling her creations. As a longstanding member of the Woodstock Market Fair Association, her dresses were often at the center of the Saturday collective. Selling the dresses for $25 and aprons for $1.50, Allen would also take special orders for her dresses, offering them in additional fabrics such as dotted Swiss, velvet or cotton voile.

The Allens, despite efforts to hold on, would eventually loose their beloved home on the hill, along with Allencrest and other properties that Willard had acquired during better times. Moving to a small cottage along Woodstock’s Library Lane, life dealt yet another blow to Augusta when Willard suffered a heart attack and died shortly thereafter. From there, Augusta would move to an artist’s cottage on the only property that the family had managed to retain. There, she would live out her remaining years surrounded by her children and grandchildren.

Augusta Allen would die on November 3, 1947, the anniversary of her wedding day to Willard. Having made Woodstock her home for 34 years, she was remembered by those who knew her for her bright, cheerful, lovable nature and good smile. Equally as important, much like the many artists who visited and found welcomed meals at her table, she left behind a part of her – a part found not in brushstrokes, but in each stitch of her original creations.

Today, a number of her dresses remain carefully preserved by the Historical Society of Woodstock and can be found in private collections. And, while her dresses may represent a time and a style long since faded from memory, they are, more importantly, a testament to all who, knowing adversity, reach within to find the creative strength to move forward, not only giving meaning to their own lives but also bringing added grace and beauty to the shared experience of their community.

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