Sally Milgrim flourished not only as a successful department store owner but also as one of the foremost fashion designers of her day. Milgrim joined the business at seventeen as a dress designer, and by the 1920s, she was creating dresses and evening wear that earned rave reviews in papers such as the New York Tribune. She also designed exclusive looks for actresses she met through Florenz Ziegfield, including Ethel Merman and Mary Pickford. But the height of her career came in 1933, when she created the pale blue gown Eleanor Roosevelt wore to her husband’s first inauguration, which remains on display at the Smithsonian. Sally Milgrim retired in 1960.
Against stiff competition of Paris originals, an American designer won the loudest and longest applause yesterday in the preview of Fall costumes at the custom made salon of Sally Milgrim. The silhouette of classic slimness refuses to be displaced and emphasizes its popularity in the medieval richness and color of its fabrics and the brilliant novelty and gaiety of its trimmings.
So reads a review in the New York Tribune’s January 1923 issue of Sally Milgrim’s evening wear collection for Milgrim’s Department Store. With this collection, and the ones that followed, she became one of the premiere American fashion designers of the early twentieth century.
Breaking into the Business
Born in New York City on April 21, 1898, to Philip and Tillie Noble, Sally Noble was just sixteen years old when she married Charles Milgrim on June 27, 1914. Charles Milgrim was then operating a custom suit business on the Lower East Side of New York City with his father and two brothers. Shortly after World War I, at age seventeen and with little more than a public school education, Sally Milgrim joined the business as a dress designer. By the 1920s the business had grown and moved briefly to Broadway and 72nd Street before moving permanently to 57th Street and Fifth Avenue. Milgrim, at this point, not only designed dresses for the company but had expanded into exclusive evening wear and was marketing her talent for fashion to the “smart society set, political wives as well as stars of the stage.” During Milgrim’s career, she became a friend of the impresario Florenz Ziegfeld and designed clothing for entertainers such as Marilyn Miller, Ethel Merman, Pearl White, and Mary Pickford. The quality of her ready-to-wear gowns, wraps, furs, negligees, and accessories was rare at a time when high fashion was still a made-to-order industry.
At a time when well-to-do women dressed three or four times a day to carry on their daily social lives, Milgrim designed for any and all of these occasions, always incorporating luxury and detailing into the richness of her designs. Milgrim’s signature looks typically included details of cross-stitch embroidery, bands of tucking, slot seaming, and fagoting. Color and high-quality fabrics played a large part in her designs. Lace and chiffon could often be found embroidered with crystals in pink or mauve. Whether working with ruffles, tiers, or layers, as a rule hemlines were thirteen inches from the floor.
Success and Legacy
In 1933, Milgrim’s greatest success came when she designed Eleanor Roosevelt’s gown for the inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The pale blue, floor-length ball gown remains in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution.
By March 1936, Milgrim was one of twenty-four women honored by the New York League of Business and Professional Women at an annual achievement dinner. This honor was remarkable in that it recognized not only her achievements among her peers but also as a woman in a male-dominated industry and world.
With the success of her designs, the Milgrim stores expanded along the East Coast to the Midwest, including Detroit, Cleveland, Columbus, Chicago, White Plains, Miami, Palm Beach, and East Orange, New Jersey. In addition, Milgrim sold a wholesale dress collection to stores throughout the country. She retired in 1960, and in 1967 her husband died. The last Milgrim store was closed in Cleveland in 1990.
In June 1994, at age one hundred and six, Sally Milgrim died in Miami, Florida. She was survived by two sons, Franklin and Paul.
“At Milgrim Uneven Hemlines for Cocktails and Evening.” Women’s Wear Daily (March 1, 1947).
“Designer Sally Milgrim Dead at 104.” Women’s Wear Daily (June 15, 1994): 21.
“Sally Milgrim, 103, A Clothes Designer.” NYTimes, June 16, 1994.