To dedicate a life, an entire life, to one hobby or career – that’s not common. The path of life these days seems ironically similar to a trip to an ice cream store. In front of the glass window with buckets of different flavors behind, we try different flavors before placing our final order. A teeny spoonful of moose tracks, mint chocolate chip, birthday cake, or just plain ole vanilla – we want to see how each one tastes before committing. The final order of some people is one flavor but many people walk out with a sundae full of many flavors.
Between the ages of 18 to 25-years-old, we work at one job or career. Bored, fed up, or wanting a change, we work at another job between the ages of 25-years-old to… oh let’s say mid thirtyish. This continues until we’re 60-years-old and we’re ready for retirement, at which point we have a report card that says we dabbled in many rather than excelling in one. That’s not a bad thing but I respect and look up to the person who sticks to one career or hobby their entire life rather than the one who tries many. When a career or hobby becomes boring or difficult, it’s harder to stay with it than hit the high road. It’s also hard to make a hobby fresh, new, and exciting when you get tired of it. This is what Mary Brooks Picken, an influential seamstress and international dressmaking authority of the early 1900s, did – she stuck to her guns like Annie Oakley and stitched her whole life.
Mary Brooks Picken was born on August 6, 1886 in Arcadia, Kansas. Not much of her early life was documented but what was known and apparent from an early age was that she had a knack for sewing. She moved to Kansas City to study fashion and after moved to Scranton, Pennsylvania, where she founded The Women’s Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences in 1916. Similar to online schools of today, the institute was a correspondence school that used classroom instructions in dressmaking, millinery, cooking, fashion design, beauty and homemaking. The school’s enrollment reached 300,000 at one point, becoming the largest school in history solely dedicated to the education of women. The school was nothing short of amazing in that it was affordable and immediately generated income for women after graduation during a time when women couldn’t vote and less than 10 percent of women worked outside the home.
In 1925, Mary moved to New York City to be the editor of Pictorial Review, a popular magazine at the time. When she moved to the city, it was an era when fashion was roaring. Mary often traveled to Paris to cover fashion events and shows and she even met Chanel, describing her as “an amazing woman, full of ideas, of energy, of genius.” While in New York, Mary achieved many other accomplishments. She had a studio where she held classes and she taught at Columbia University. She was the first woman to be named a trustee of the Fashion Institute of Technology and she was one of the five original directors of the Costume Institute, which is now a part of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. She became the first woman to publish a dictionary – The Language of Fashion, which was later renamed The Fashion Dictionary. In the same social circle as the fashion designer Eleanor Lambert, Mary was part of the group who started New York Fashion Week in 1943 (she faithfully attended fashion shows well into her 80s).
Mary also wrote close to 100 books on the subject of dressmaking, pattern making, hats, foundations, tailoring, aprons, embroidery stitches, remodeling, maternity and infant clothing, etc. Her books didn’t just provide information and knowledge on sewing, rather, her books provided timeless wisdom on the every day philosophy of life – how the home arts can prompt dignity, joy, meaning, and self esteem in a woman’s life. In her book Thimblefuls of Friendliness, Mary writes, “Knowledge of any constructive kind, any educational or human hobby, is a rainy day fund. It makes life interesting, develops appreciation and teaches us the virtues of fidelity to honest purpose.”
Mary’s pioneering also inspired woman to form ‘Institute Clubs’ around the world where women found one another, shared with one another, and taught one another through classified ads. A vintage form of Facebook, women wrote to newspapers asking editors to introduce them to other women of their type so that they could share and learn. Kind of like the online sewing community of today, right? And we thought we were ahead of our time!
Dedication. Dedication similar in taste and flavor to Mary’s isn’t seen much today and it inspires me. Mary didn’t walk out of this world with a sundae with one scoop moose tracks, one scoop dulce de leche, and one scoop rum raisin. When she was at the glass case with the buckets of ice cream in front of her, she said to the ice cream man, “I’ll have that flavor and LOTS OF IT.”
- Amy Barickman’s book Vintage Notions is a compilation of inspirational essays, clever sewing patterns, cooking basics, and illustrations from the Institute’s newsletters
- Katharine Whistler writes a brief biography on Mary but she also downloadable PDF’s of Mary’s books House Aprons and Caps and Plain Undergarments
- Wikepedia provides a great timeline/list of her books and when each was published
- Cornell University’s library offers a downloadable PDF of Mary’s book Mary Brooks Picken Method of Modern Dressmaking
- The blog What I Found has some great images of Mary’s books