March 22, 2012

Frankie Welch, Politics, and that Cherokee Scarf

While working as a personal shopper for D.C.-area socialites, Frankie Welch (left) decided she’d rather have them shopping in her own store than sending them somewhere else.

Cabinet members' wives, White House staffers' wives and newswomen of the capital all had Welch shop in New York for them and coordinate their wardrobes. But in 1963, the Cherokee fashionista opened her first boutique and began selling her own designs and accessories.

Welch is now known for designing and creating scarves that were the height of fashion in the years spanning the Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan administrations.

She even designed a green silk gown for Betty Ford (pictured right), which is now displayed in the First Ladies’ Hall at the Smithsonian Institution.

Welch’s designs are also inspired by her Cherokee heritage. One of her most well-known patterns features the Cherokee alphabet. Welch explained in a 1968 feature article that she had always been fascinated by the Cherokee syllabary. The beautiful designs of the letters soon covered her scarves and dresses.

Throughout her career, she designed more than 4,000 dresses and accessories.

And they showed up in very important locations.

The advisor on fine arts for the state department selected two of the Cherokee scarves to be framed and hung in American embassies under the Art In Embassies program.

They were also displayed in Time Life Books, the University of Georgia, National Geographic, Jaguar Automotive, and McDonalds (for their first franchise outside of the United States).

Not only were the scarves seen as important 'patriotic' signifiers of American identity, they were also used as raw fabric to create garments that would clothe leaders, and the wives and daughters of leaders.

In the 1968 image above, Welch (who wears her own Cherokee alphabet print dress) adjusts a 'Frankie' dress on Mrs. Douglas Cater, wife of a special assistant to President Johnson. In the image above right, Vice President Humphrey signed this 'signature scarf'. The daughter of the ambassador to Ireland, Miss Virginia Guest, models the scarf.

New York fashion designer Norman Norell even used Welch's fabric to create a dress with a full skirt made of red bordered scarves, a wide patent belt and a slim, black, long sleeved top (above left). And Native superstar LaDonna Harris even supported the fashion designs of Welch (pictured above right). Harris was the wife of Senator Fred Harris (D-Okla), the campaign director for Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey - and Harris is shown here modeling the long H-line dress created for the HHH campaign.

Welch was also into giving back. One dollar from the sale of each scarf was donated to the scholarship fund for higher education of the Eastern Band of Cherokees.

That's a pretty cool little bit of Native fashion and political history.

Click here and here to read more about Frankie Welch.