Juli Lynne Charlot, creator of the Poodle skirt, dies at 101

Juli Lynne Charlot, creator of the Poodle skirt, dies at 101

What can a kind Jewish viscountess do when she has a title but no money, an invitation to a party but no clothes, and a pair of scissors but can’t sew?

Invent the poodle skirt, of course.

That, quite by accident, is what Juli Lynne Charlot did in late 1947, creating in the process a totem of mid-century material culture as evocative as the riding shoe, the Hula-Hoop, and the pink plastic flamingo. .

Charlot, a New York native who died at age 101 on Sunday at her home in Tepoztlán, Mexico, had been a Hollywood singer before marrying a British viscount, or nobleman, in the mid-1940s. Fashion-conscious but desperate for a needle, she stumbled out of necessity on a pattern for a statement skirt that required no sewing: Take a large swath of solid-color felt, cut it into an expansive circle, adorn it with cheerful appliqué figures in contrasting colors. , make a hole in the center and enter.

The result, the embellished circle skirt, was ubiquitous during the 1950s, purchased en masse by women and, in particular, by teenagers. With its voluminous fabric that flared out beautifully as the wearer spun, it was ideal for sock jumping.

Over the years, Charlot’s circle skirts and her many imitators came adorned with a variety of figurative applications, often comprising small visual narratives. But because the most popular incarnation of the garment featured images of poodles, all such skirts came to be known generically as poodle skirts.

“When I was a teenager, every girl in the entire Western world wore a poodle skirt,” wrote comedian Erma Bombeck in a 1984 column. She went on to define it as “a skirt with enough fabric to cover New Jersey with a large poodle appliquéd on it.” ”.

Literally born out of postwar abundance (fabrics were no longer in short supply), the poodle skirt fused seamlessly with 1950s youth culture, a set of jaunty rags that seemed to herald a carefree era. Never mind the Cold War, the skirt seemed to say: Let’s rock 24 hours a day.

In later years, the poodle skirt became visual shorthand for the entire decade. Even now, you can hardly put on a production of “Grease” or “Bye Bye Birdie” without evidence.

The daughter of Phillip and Betty (Cohen) Agin, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Mrs. Charlot was born Shirley Agin in Manhattan on October 26, 1922.

When she was a child, her family moved to Southern California. There, her father, an electrician, and her mother, an embroiderer, practiced her trade in the Hollywood studios.

“It was easier to be poor in a benign climate,” Charlot said in 2017, at age 94, in an interview for this obituary that covered her career as a singer (“By the way, I still have a voice”); her unlikely stage appearances with the Marx Brothers (“I was very beautiful then”); her penchant for marriage and romance (“I was always in love with someone”); and her work as a self-taught fashion designer.

Young Shirley’s school friends included future artists such as the future Judy Garland, the future Ann Miller, and the future Lana Turner. Possessing an excellent soprano voice, she began taking singing lessons at age 13, determined to become an opera singer. “He was going to be the greatest exponent of Mozart,” she said.

Because she thought Shirley was not a suitable name for a diva, she adopted the professional name Juli Lynne.

After graduating from Hollywood High School, she sang with the Civic Light Opera of Los Angeles and with the Xavier Cugat Orchestra. During world war II, she appeared with the marx brothers on a tour of military bases in the United States.

Throughout her years as an actress, she designed her own costumes. Because she had refused to learn to sew (“I didn’t want to be a slave, like my mother”), she hired a seamstress to make her designs on her fabric.

Charlot had no shortage of “famous admirers,” he said, among them Harold Lloyd, Gary Cooper and Isaac Stern, the violinist.

She was married four times, “to two millionaires, a royal count, and a son of” (and here she paused for dramatic effect) “baron.”

The first marriage, to the first millionaire, “didn’t really count,” Charlot said. They divorced after three days.

Just after the war, she eloped to Las Vegas with Philip Charlot, an officer in the British Royal Navy. The son of a French father and English mother, he was also, he later learned, a Viscount.

At his request, she abandoned her career and settled for a life as a housewife viscountess. Her husband found work as a film editor in Hollywood.

In December 1947, she was invited to a Christmas party in Hollywood. She had nothing suitable to wear and no money: her husband had recently lost her job.

A fairy godmother intervened in the person of Mrs. Charlot’s mother, who at that time had a small children’s clothing factory. She gave her daughter a huge white felt sheet.

Out came the scissors, and before long, Ms. Charlot found herself in the center of a white circular skirt.

“I made the hole with my brother’s slide rule: C = 2πr,” she said in 2017. She knew how to hand sew well enough to apply green felt Christmas trees to the background.

“My mother had a cigar box full of little knick-knacks that she used at work,” he said. “Those were placed on Christmas trees as decorations.”

The skirt was “a big hit” at the party, she recalled.

She made several similar skirts and took them to a boutique in Beverly Hills. They’re sold out.

After the holidays, the store requested an out-of-season design. She, I think a painting of dachshunds chasing each other around the skirt. Once the dachshunds were sold, the store suggested she turns her attention to the poodles. French poodles were très chic at that time and many customers owned them.

The poodles beat the dachshunds.

Today, Charlot skirts are prized by vintage clothing collectors and can sell for many hundreds of dollars each.

Charlot soon had a poodle skirt factory. He made skirts adorned with images of frogs and water lilies, Parisian street scenes, galloping racehorses, cascading flowers and champagne glasses and pink elephantsplus matching blouses, dresses, hats and bags.

In the early 1950sher skirts sold for about $35 each, about $400 in today’s money.

Because Ms. Charlot’s business skills were, by her own account, on par with her sewing, her factory failed at first. “My mother pawned her diamond ring for three weeks straight to help me make payroll,” she told the United Press news service in 1953.

But with the help of an investor—and with orders from upscale department stores, including Bullock’s Wilshire in Los Angeles, Neiman Marcus in Dallas, and Bergdorf Goodman in New York—its future was assured.

Today, Charlot skirts are prized by vintage clothing collectors and can sell for many hundreds of dollars each.

His marriage to his viscount did not last. At the height of her success as a designer, her mother invited her to tea. “The more successful you are, the less successful he is,” she remembers her mother-in-law telling her. “You are destroying my son.”

Although Charlot loved her husband deeply, she gave him a divorce, she said, so he could get his life back.

Charlot’s third marriage, to the second millionaire, ended in divorce, as did her fourth, to the Mexican-born son of a German baron. She discovered that he had not bothered to tell her that he had been married to two women previously and that he had not bothered to divorce her either.

He leaves no immediate family.

In later years, Charlot, whose death was confirmed by her friend Carol Hopkins, made contemporary interpretations of traditional Mexican wedding dresses. She had lived in Tepoztlán, south of Mexico City, since the 1980s.

In the height of the sixties, the miniskirt had put an end to the poodle. But before that happened, a young woman was captured in a press photograph that revealed the scope of Charlot’s work.

The year was 1951 and the place was Ottawa, where the woman was attending a party at the home of the governor general of Canada. At age 25, she had never seen a hoedown and she received private tutoring on the mysteries before the dance began.

The woman, dressed in a steel blue circular skirt of Ms. Charlot with heart appliqués, flowering branches and stylized Romeo and Juliet figures, performed admirably, according to press reports.

Her name was Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor, and from the following year she would be known as Queen Elizabeth II.

Alex Traub contributed reports.

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John C. Johnson

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