Restoring a jewel: Local business mends dress of iconic WWII-era pin-up model

Pin-up artist Rolf Armstrong and Jewel Flowers, who became popular as a pin-up model in the World War II era. (Submitted photo)

A piece of American history is being restored to its former glory. Treasured Garment Restoration, a part of St. Croix Cleaners in Oak Park Heights, provides vintage clothing restoration, and specialist Kathryn Clobes is currently mending and making alternations on a 1940s pin-up dress worn by the American pin-up model, Jewel Flowers.

Flowers’ 20-year pin-up modeling career began in 1940 when she became a model for artist Rolf Armstrong and appeared in calendar art. She became a fixture of trench art for World War II servicemen.

Flowers’ image was the basis of many pin-ups drawn on the noses of bomber planes and on tank turrets, embodying the American soldier spirit of “what we are fighting for.”

Clobes said Flowers became so well known during the war that a serviceman’s letter addressed simply as “Jewel Flowers, New York City” would make its way to Flowers’ fanmail.

Treasured Garment Restoration received the dress from the estate of the late Mike Wooldridge, who was an author and lifetime collector of pin-up art. He co-authored two books, “Pin-Up Dreams,” which was number one on the New York Times Best Seller List for nonfiction, and “The Glamour Girl: A Collector’s Guide to Rolf Armstrong.”

A local business is restoring one of the dresses Jewel Flowers posed in. (Submitted photos)
A local business is restoring one of the dresses Jewel Flowers posed in. (Submitted photos)

Pin-up art was based on photographs or studio sessions with live models. The artist would paint or draw the image of the woman, altering shapes or characteristics to fit into the “ideal” look.

Flowers died in 2006 at the age of 82, but gave a purple and green dress she wore as a model to Wooldridge as a gift for including her in his books.

Clobes said a member of Wooldridge’s family brought the 75-year-old dress to be mended and preserved with photographs and images of the dress being worn by Flowers.

“She has a copy of the painting in her home, so she wanted the dress restored so she could display it in her home,” Clobes said.

Clobes, who studied vintage alterations and fashion design, usually works with vintage wedding dresses. A project like the Flowers dress is a fun challenge, Clobes said.

“Anytime you touch it, it kinda breaks apart,” Clobes said. “We had originally talked about patching it, but it is just too much.”

After inspection and cleaning, Clobes discovered the bodice top of the dress was too old and damaged to be saved. She made a pattern from the original dress and searched fabric supplies across the country to find a similar purple fabric.

“Silk velvet is a difficult fabric to acquire these days,” Clobes said.

The skirt of the dress was in better condition and will be cleaned and repaired. Clobes said the design of the dress is different than what appeared in the pin-up paintings.

“In one of the paintings, it appears the dress has a hoop skirt, which it doesn’t,” Clobes said. “The painting also has a different shape and appears tighter than how the dress looks.”

While the dress is older than many of the other vintage dresses Clobes works with, she said it would be possible to wear the dress if a model in a similar size is found.

“We do a lot of alterations for vintage wedding dresses, like a mother or grandmother passing a dress to a child or grandchild,” Clobes said.

Most dresses of that age, including the Flowers dress, have yellowed due to oxidation. Oxidation stains can be cleaned.

“You see oxidation on wedding dresses more because they are white, but there is oxidation in war uniforms and in darker-colored clothing,” Clobes said. “I see a lot of people that are shocked to see grandmother’s wedding dress white again.”

The Flowers dress is nearly completed after a three-month restoration process.

“It’s been fun to be a part of history and work on a project like this,” Clobes said.

Contact Alicia Lebens at [email protected]