BEHIND THE LABELS: LIBBY PAYNE, FASHION DESIGNER FOR “MRS. MAIN STREET AMERICA”
This research sought to explore the life and career of Elizabeth “Libby” Miller Payne (1917-1997). The history of American ready-to-wear (RTW) is filled with unknown fashion designers who worked “behind the scenes” for manufacturers. This was especially true in the mid-20th century between the advent of manufactured women’s clothing and the rise of the celebrity fashion designer. In downtown department stores and boutiques all over the country, consumers purchased moderately-price styles created by names that never appeared on a label. One of these was Elizabeth “Libby” Miller Payne (1917-1987), a prolific designer whose career spanned fifty years in the New York ready-to-wear industry. Libby Payne designed hundreds of garments for “Mrs. Main Street America” under well-recognized moderate price-point labels such as Bobbie Brooks, Jonathan Logan, Beau Baker, David Warren, and John Henry. Libby’s designs “sold like hotcakes.” One of Libby’s most successful, Bobbie Brooks Style #862, sold 100,000 in its first two months on the market.
The purpose of this research study was to investigate the life and work of creative talent, Libby Payne, situating her in the context of the mid-20th century American fashion industry, and utilizing her history as a vehicle for understanding the evolution of moderate price-point labels, designers, suppliers, manufacturers, retailers, and consumers during this critical time. Although the name, Libby Payne was previously unknown, her creations filled the retail selling floors and closets of “Mrs. Main Street America” from the 1930’s through the 1980’s. Throughout her long career, Libby experienced the evolution of the fashion industry first-hand, from her first position in a New York manufacturer’s workroom to retirement as a sometime freelance designer with a showroom and offsite production. Her story can provide insights to the business behind accessible ready-to-wear clothing, the evolution of the fashion designer, and secrets to success in this role. Libby Payne worked in fashion for more than half of her life, and her experiences can be viewed as a lens that reflects the American industry’s growth and change. Her legacy can inform us of the way the ready-to-wear industry has evolved into what it is today.