Most of my frocks or dresses were made by my Grandmother, Elizabeth Allen (Saunders). During my early childhood, I remember sitting next to my grandmother on her bed while she was diligently stitching something wonderful.
I was trying to create a hand stiched purse for myself. Grandmother Elizabeth, observant of what I was trying to do, took charge and hand stitch the remaining fabrics together, until she finished my purse. I was delighted. There is something special about a moment like that. To be fortunate enough to sit next to my grandmother, and observe her craft while making a creation of my own.
Grandmother Elizabeth was born in 1911 in New York City to Mary Ester Saunders (Shinault) and Charles Saunders. Grandmother Elizabeth had two sisters, Dorothy and Alma and a brother Billy. Her husband Carlito Benjamin Allen was often not present in the home. According to the 1940 census, Grandmother Elizabeth, a seamstress, age 29, b.1911 is listed as a lodger at 139th Street, in New York City, N.Y. with her 2nd grader son, Reginald Winston Allen age 9. Grandmother Elizabeth’s sister, Alma b.1915, in North Carolina, age 25, was residing as a lodger in the same building with her two year old son Bruce, b.1938.
My grandmother attended the Pratt Institute, 200 Willoughby Ave, in New York. She has been credited as the first person in our family at the time to graduate from College. Her yearning was to become a Dress Designer. Oftentimes one would find her tatting in her spare time. For those who are not familiar with tatting it is a craft, a technique that uses heavy thread to construct a series of knots and loops using a hand held shuttle to create the lace edging on a collar for example but, for the purpose of my grandmother, she did it to decorate the border of her handkerchiefs. Amazing work, which takes hours to complete, with a high learning curve to master.
Part of our family lore is a story my Dad had told me numerous times about his mother. Not only did I hear this story from Dad, but from many other relatives as well, including Cousin(s) Jean, Simone, Bruce, Ken, my Sister Charisse and Brother Scott. They all tell it like this…
Grandmother Elizabeth designed a collection of beautiful antebellum dresses for several dolls. She relinquished the dolls to a woman. The woman may have promised her a financial gain for the exquisitely dressed dolls. The transaction had potential to transition into a possible employment opportunity, considering the economic climate of the times in the 1930’s. My grandmother never heard from the woman who took the dresses and the dolls. Grandmother Elizabeth was absolutely astonished when she saw replicas of her dress design featured in the Epic Motion Picture Movie, “Gone with the Wind.” Believe me, this story has been told countless times of how my grandmother was “ripped off,” of her dress designs without compensation or acknowledgement of her work. She was tormented by this infringement, compounded by other unfair circumstances, which caused her to shift in mental status and become ill over time. Dad took me to visit his Mother in a Nursing Home in New York. Despite she had endured a stroke on her right side, she was still able to create things using her hands.
What does the law have to say about Fashion Designs and Copyright Protection?
The copyright Acts defines “useful article” an article having intrinsic utilitarian function that is not mearly to portray the appearance of the article or to convey information. An article that is normally part of a useful article is considered a useful article.17 U.S.C 101 U.S. The designer has no say concerning the useful and further disposition of the article that has registered copyright once the designer or manufacturer has released that article into general commerce by selling it or giving it away.
Second court of appeals (1991 and 1995) relating to clothing and the fact that clothing is not copyrightable. In essence, my grandmother’s dress design had a functional purpose for the dolls. It served to keep the doll decent in appearance. Had Grandmother Elizabeth established a mutual written agreement with the woman who took her dolls and her designs, I’m certain she would have had a more favorable resolve.
My journey continues…as I search for my Shinault, Gamble, Saunders, Allen, Garcia, Strother Heritage on my Paternal side, and the Williams, and Jacoways on my Maternal side. Stay tuned. There is more to come from my fabulous journey of family relations and discovery.
A native New Yorker and resident of Chicago. A member of the Black Heritage Committee of NEIU. Family and Community oriented, loves to travel and experience other cultures.
Fashion design and the law the rule book for independent designers and the marketers behind them July 30,2012 Aslerlaw.wordpress.com