THE DeGRAZIA FABRICS
A Collision of Western Art and Fashion
A Collision of Western Art and Fashion
The evolving, emotive and often contradictory approach to ne art by Ted DeGrazia (1909–1982) shaped not only the artistic identify of Southern Arizona, but the style of the southwest. Born in the mining town of Morenci, Arizona in 1909, DeGrazia attended the University of Arizona under Katherine Kitt before traveling to Mexico City to study with modern muralists Diego Rivera and Jose Clement Orozco.1 His earnest contribution to Arizona’s culture and artistic identity was in many ways eclipsed by the popularity and mass production of his saccharine images of children, owers and Native Americans that graced countless greeting cards and Goebel figurines. Although for many, the DeGrazia name became synonymous with “Western Kitsch,” De- Grazia’s remarkable and in uential artistic identity shaped Tucson’s style at a time when interest in the Southwest was becoming an American obsession.
The surging popularity of western gun-slinging lms created an iconographic visual language of wagon wheels, dude ranches and saguaro cacti which permeated the American populist vision of the Southwest. These nationally accepted notions of exotic western life were more aligned to a pervasive fantasy of mythic individual ruggedness, rather than emerging modern cities. Nationwide consumer demand for western trappings fueled a regional exportation of ideas. Tucson, like many of the emerging twentieth century south- western cities, struggled to reconcile con icting identities of a “wild-west” past and a future de ned by progressive modernism. These colliding intersections often produced cliché: ranch houses, ornamental desert landscaping, ranch oak furniture, rodeo parades and western wear all com- bined to create a popular vision of the southwest, which was entirely authentic in its own context. Cultural appropriation of visual ideas from Native American and Mexican cultures, blending with the idealized and unrealistic notions of cowboys and ranching, swirling into a romantic construct that permeated the 1950s and 60s. Howdy Doody, Rex Allen, and Gunsmoke all fueled the ames.
Following World War II, Tucson was poised to become an epicenter of western style and design. By 1950, a group of designers had created a robust western fashion industry, cultivating an array of western wear trends which swept the nation and helped cement national views of the southwest. The patio dress, the Tohono dress, the circle skirt and the pejorative “squaw dress”2 were created and recreated in endless variations to appeal to this new national market.
By the early 1950s ten garment designers were producing eight million dollars of annual product sales in Tucson.3 Designers like Sonora-born Delores Barcelo Gonzales launched Delores Resort Wear4; George Fine, who moved to Tucson from New York by way of Los Angeles in 1950 to start Georgie of Arizona, quickly became the industry’s biggest booster.5 A 1952 Tucson Daily Citizen article examined the signi cant and rapid growth of the fashion industry, with Fine concluding that Ettore “Ted” DeGrazia had jump started the industry in the Tucson Valley.6
DeGrazia was not a tailor or a fashion designer, he was ne artist. Before WWII, his work was substantially in uenced by social realism, expressing the milieu and often harsh re- alities of the Arizona-Mexico borderlands. After his time in Mexico City, he returned to Tucson and challenged the traditionalist gallery system by opening his own adobe stu- dio and gallery on the southeast corner of Campbell Avenue and Prince Road. DeGrazia’s work following WWII embraced the popularization of Southwestern vernacular iconography, while his larger than life persona began to attract regional and national attention.
By 1949, DeGrazia began branching out into various media that would attract press attention. One of these endeavors included developing hand painted dresses for Steinfeld’s department store in downtown Tucson, using what he called “authentic Apache designs.”7 The story was featured in NBC’s Watch the World newsreel and by 1952 De- Grazia was commissioned by New York-based Fuller Fabrics to create fteen fabric designs, each in uenced by the tonality and graphics of the southwest.
Fuller Fabrics was founded in New York City by Daniel B. Fuller in 1933, specializing in women’s sportswear fabrics.8 DeGrazia worked with the company to develop a rich, lush color palette and graphic language that simultaneously captured the sensibility of the desert and an aesthetically aware mid century era. The company, Touraine Sports- wear, designed and manufactured prêt-à-porter skirts sold throughout the country. In January 1952 the Citizen report- ed the details of the fabric launch:
Dresses throughout the nation will display the striking southwest scenes this winter when designs by Tucson Artist Ted DeGrazia go on sale in hundreds of department stores this week. A nationwide advertising campaign planned by dress manufacturers and textile mills will be touched off here Saturday when DeGrazia appears at Levy’s department store to personally auto- graph the skirts. It will be the first time Tucson designs have appeared on such a large scale, according to Abe Blumberg, New York textile man who coordinated the program. Blumberg said the total yardage from at least eight of the 14 designs is expected to “run into the millions.” He said it all started last summer when he became fascinated with DeGrazia’s work and saw the possibility of using it in designs on cloth. Fuller Textiles, N.Y., one of the of the world’s largest mills, became interested by Blumberg’s enthusiasm and ew out their head stylist Peter Kaiser. Kaiser worked with DeGrazia and explained the process of printing in color on cloth and worked out mechanical details with him. DeGrazia then went to work on the designs and the result is remarkable and outstanding according to Blumberg. “I don’t think the American woman has seen anything like it before,” he said. “and I am sure they will nd the scenes and the colors irresistible.” The company is negotiating a ve-year contract with DeGrazia. The circle skirts which go on sale at Levy’s Saturday were manufactured by Touraine and will feature eight designs. Tucson will be the first city in the country to get them and additional designs and skirts are being own here as quickly as they can be produced. […] Designs printed so far are: Square Dance, Papago Life, Running Horses, Carousel, Apache Deer, Cactus, and overall patterns of 14 Hohokam gures and something DeGrazia calls “my little story of the Hohokam sun ower.” They are all printed in color on various materials.9
The fabrics were a sensation. Levy’s Department Store, an anchor in downtown Tucson, in advertising the promotional ballyhoo, stressed that the launch was a sell out: “A complete sell out…the rst time!” The advertisement announced the arrival of another shipment. The skirts includ- ed “the exciting, vibrant Stampede pattern in three color patterns: purple, aqua, lime; rust, brown, green; and red, blue, green.” The skirt sold at Levy’s for $7.98; Carousel pattern on white piqué in yellow, green and red patterns for $5.98.10
George Fine was one of many designers to utilize the De- Grazia fabric, and masterfully incorporated them into trending silhouettes. In Los Angeles, Samuel Goldwyn and RKO Radio Pictures included one of the fabric prints in their pro- duction, Hans Christian Andersen, starring Danny Kaye.11
The national success of the fabric and skirt designs were the jumpstart to the local design industry that George Fine ascribed to DeGrazia. In September of 1953, the Tucson Daily Citizen reported that buyers from the St. Louis department store, Stix, Baer, and Fuller, worked with DeGrazia to re-create a full size replica his studio in their store windows, to promote the western garments coming out of Tucson.12 As the nation came to view Southern Arizona as a leader in the western dress design, throughout the 1950s, Tucson’s fashion industry flourished. The success of De- Grazia’s fabrics were a prelude to the Fuller Fabric patterns released in 1955 called “Modern Masters,” which featured interpreted designs by thirteen modern artists including: Joan Miró, Raoul Dufy, Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, and Marc Chagall.13
By the end of the mid-1950s, DeGrazia’s interests had shifted to other projects, including the full edged licensing on his beloved images that would fund his artistic empire. De- Grazia died in 1982, leaving the DeGrazia Foundation and his beloved Gallery and Mission in the Sun to the people of Southern Arizona, a legacy of his distinctive independent brand of western art.