GLENS FALLS - People used to say you can't alter a McMullen dress. That's because you couldn't get the seam out.
But high-quality tailoring was not the only thing that set the McMullen-Leavens Company apart from the other clothing manufacturers in Glens Falls. The factory, which at one time was the city's largest employer, helped change women's casual fashion in the mid-20th century.
"This man from our Glens Falls had a vision that really shaped American sportswear fashion in the 1930s, 1940s and beyond," said Teri Podnorszki Ulrich, a researcher at the Chapman Historical Museum.
On Saturday, the Chapman will open a major exhibit that explores the history of the company and its impact on the fashion scene. The exhibit, "Hometown at Work: The McMullen-Leavens Company," is the culmination of five years of research, Ulrich said.
The show will feature numerous artifacts, including dressed mannequins, specialty sewing machines, historic photographs and other items acquired by the museum when the company closed its doors in 1996. The exhibit will also include oral histories from 10 people who worked at the factory over its 94-year history.
Betty Ormsby of Glens Falls was a collar trimmer at the factory for 61 years. She is one of the people featured in the oral histories. The 85-year-old said she would still be working at the factory with her friend Beverly if the company hadn't closed.
Ormsby said she got paid the minimum wage for running collars through a cutting machine all day long. It was a good job, and she said she was sad to see the factory go.
"(Workers) were very proud of the company, and the work they did," said Ulrich, during an early tour of the exhibit.
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The factory on Lawrence Street opened in 1902. Its founders, James Robert McMullen and Walter P. Leavens, had been managers at the Joseph Fowler Shirt & Collar Company on Glen Street before it was destroyed by fire, she said.
For more than 30 years, the company built up a reputation of making fine men's dress shirts using superior quality materials. At its peak, it employed 750 people.
Then in 1935, McMullen, who took sole control of the company after Leavens' death in 1922, had the foresight to diversify, expanding the clothing line to include women's dresses. He created a classic-style shirt frock for women, using fine men's shirting fabrics and designs. The versatile, simple-but-elegant shirtwaist dress proved to be a big hit with affluent and professional women, Ulrich said.
The highly acclaimed style, known as "the McMullen look," helped propel McMullen-Leavens to "the pinnacle of the American casual sportswear fashion scene for much of the 20th century," she said.
Ulrich flipped through a pile of historic photographs from the factory, stopping at a picture of the third floor, which was the factory's cutting room. Rows of men, wearing ties and aprons, stood at a line of tables cutting out patterns.
"Up on the third floor, you can still see the grooves on the floor where these men stood," Ulrich said.
Today, the building, known now as the Troy Shirt Factory, is broken into studio spaces for artists and small businesses. (In 1940, the company purchased the Troy Shirt Maker's Guild, and the name stuck with the factory after McMullen's death in 1946.)
Ulrich flipped to a photo showing hundreds of women bent over sewing machines on the second floor of the factory. After the sewing, the men's shirts, dresses and blouses were sent down to the first floor to be finished, pressed and boxed for fashionable ladies and gents across the country.
IF YOU GO
The Chapman Historical Museum will open the exhibit, "Hometown at Work: The McMullen-Leavens Company" this Saturday. The exhibit will be on display through Feb. 28. Thomas Simpson, who did much of the early research on the exhibit, will give a lecture at 2 p.m. Saturday on the company.