Her passion was fashion. For many, hearing the name “Jessica McClintock” is synonymous with Gunne Sax.
Although Jessica McClintock was educated as a teacher, her love for textiles, sewing and fashion was born within her. Her grandmother, the artist Verna Hedrick, gave her a foundation of skills which would later blossom into a fairy tale success story.
In her element with the hum of a sewing machine and surrounded by bolts of fabrics, McClintock left her feminine, ruffled, and fabulously frilly mark on the fashion world for all of time.
Her recent death at the age of 90 leaves many remembering their own iconic Gunne dresses. Oh, how special her creations made a girl feel!
“I believe Romance is beauty that touches the emotional part of our being.”
Hippie Era Beginnings of the Gunne Sax Empire
San Francisco. 1967. The year of the unforgettable Summer of Love. Carol Miller and Elle Bailey, avid sewers, founded Gunne Sax in San Francisco, taking the name from a gunny sack, and transforming it into a fashionable art with calico floral fabrics.
By 1969, the pair were seeking someone to partner with. Along came Jessica McClintock, then a schoolteacher with no formal training or illustrious fashion background…a testament to the free-spirited times.
With a $5,000 investment, McClintock partnered with Bailey, eventually becoming the sole owner of what was to become the fashion icon, Gunne Sax.
In her own words, “I never went to design school, I never did anything, but my grandmother was a fabulous pattern maker and designer, and from five years old on I was sitting at her Singer sewing machine, and I would make anything I could get my hands on.”
That step would transform her life: her flair for style and design, which was often influenced by the nostalgia and romance of the Victorian era, captured the eye of women everywhere. Soon Gunne Sax dresses were enchanting shoppers at upscale department stores like I. Magnin.
Out With the Mini, In With the Gunne
McClintock once described 1969 as the ending of the “mini” era – and the beginning of the age of Gunne Sax country prairie. Her signature blend of nostalgic calico prints, old-fashioned muslins, elaborate velvets, satin ribbons and frilly lace certainly harkened to another time.
In those days, there were no a-line pencil skirts and boring business suits. McClintock embraced the divine feminine, with her frocks often featuring long, billowy cuts adorned with plenty of lace and dainty trim like satin ribbons, tiny pearl buttons and long, flowing tiebacks. And who can forget those distinctive high neck Victorian collars that commanded attention?
Gunne Sax Epitomized the Divine Feminine
McClintock’s fashions appealed to women of all ages, but the target market for early Gunne Sax was young women in their teens to twenties. Small groups of young women, frequently with long casual wavy hair parted in the middle, were prominent in marketing media.
She captured a distinct essence in fashion that embraced femininity: wearing a McClintock-designed dress connected a woman with her inner nature as a divine, feminine creation. Not only did she look beautiful, but she also felt beautiful, too.
And best of all, her fashions were affordable for the every-day woman. Young teens zipped up her gowns for their proms, many wore Gunne Sax designs as a wedding gown (as Hillary Clinton did when she married Bill in 1975); still others incorporated her fashions into their everyday fashion routines.
And why not?
Embracing your beauty is empowering, so it’s no wonder that Gunne Sax remains popular even today, perhaps boosted by the cottagecore movement.
“When you feel you are being moved by the creative spirit, you are in fact being moved by the divine feminine.” – Teri Degler
McClintock renamed her empire from Gunne Sax to Jessica McClintock in the late 1980s. Of her path, she shared, “I didn’t think it was work because I loved it so much. I didn’t even stop to think about it.”
Perhaps that’s the litmus test for following your true calling in life: it’s not “work” because you’re fueled by an inexhaustible inner passion.
Gunne Sax Represents a Real-Life Fairy Tale
McClintock’s rise from her humble beginnings in Maine was like a “once upon a time story.” Her mother was a beautician, her father a shoe salesman. Her grandmother taught her sewing skills and her mom always encouraged her to be creative.
It was a solid foundation for imagination, ingenuity, and creativity that gave birth to an icon of women’s fashion, embracing what would become a powerhouse blend of fantasy and feminine.
“Behind every successful woman is herself.” -Anonymous
McClintock admitted she lived in a fantasy world. “I imagine myself lying here reading Emily Bronte. I live in a dream world,” she told Maria Wilhem in People.
Bronte was best known for her classic novel Wuthering Heights, turned into a tear-jerker 1939 black and white movie featuring Merle Oberon as Cathy and Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff. While filmed in California, scenes depicted the haunting moors of England and told of a love that was otherworldly between Cathy and Heathcliff.
And indeed, Oberon’s long hair and billowy gowns, gently tossed by the winds of the moor as she searches for her beloved Heathcliff, might been Jessica McClintock in another life…