“There’s a timeless quality to them, and they’re dresses that you hold on to,” Carrie Polk, one of four sisters with deep family roots in this river city, said of cherry dresses. “Three generations in our family have worn them. They’re like clothes from before the disposable-clothes era, with hems the size of Texas. You didn’t just spill chocolate on one and pitch it. You got it cleaned and ironed, and if you grew, you brought down the hem.”
A kiddie garment may seem a flimsy thing on which to hang a social history, but the cherry dress is sold in only one place in the world, and that place itself is a historical rarity, perhaps the largest among the remaining outposts of a once-thriving national network of nonprofit “exchanges” for women’s work.
Come Easter, orders at the store are so strong for cherry dresses that Ellie Dressel, who sews them, says her leg is “chained to the sewing machine.” Ms. Dressel, a divorced mother who has supported a family and reared a mentally challenged son at home by sewing this one item (450 dresses a year, she said) for nearly a quarter-century, epitomizes the Horatio Alger principles behind the Woman’s Exchange, which a 19th-century newspaper described as “helping those who try to help themselves.”
In classic form, the cherry dress is a simple box-pleat frock in white cotton, with a piped Peter Pan collar, a snap closure and four paired cotton cherries, in sewing terminology called yo-yos, stitched on the front.
The St. Louis Women’s Exchange was founded in 1883 by a group of women who had the means to lend their time. This mission of the exchange was to help other women profit from their handmade goods, allowing them to stay at home with their children. Each consignee receives between 70% – 100% of the purchase price of their product. The exchange also helps offset the cost of materials.
In current times, this system allows moms with special needs children to stay at home with their children instead of having them looked after by pricey nurses or nannies.
Of scores that existed at the height of the movement, there are now about 20 left, including outposts in Memphis, St. Augustine, Fla., and Brooklyn. The women’s exchanges, voluntary social service agencies, originated in 19th-century Philadelphia as places for genteel ladies fallen on hard times to discreetly earn a living without leaving home.
For reasons lost to time, each exchange tended to develop its own particular products. The shuttered and much-lamented New York Exchange for Women’s Work — started in 1878 by Candace Wheeler, an interior designer, and Mary Atwater Choate, a prominent New Yorker who also founded the preparatory school now known as Choate Rosemary Hall — made a specialty of smock dresses, bittersweet chocolate cakes and cod balls. (The exchange fell victim in 2003 to soaring real estate prices.) The Baltimore exchange became renowned for sock monkeys. St. Louis had the cherry dress.
There are many variations of the Cherry dress. The original version comes in blue $59, white $59 and a jumper. For young boys they have the Cherry jumper $58, a Navy suit(ridiculously adorable) $ 52 and a Personalized shortall $68.
The Cherry jumper for young boys was once worn by John Kennedy Jr. (pictured left) and Gwyneth Paltrow is said to have ordered the Cherry dress for Apple Martin, her daughter.
The shop also sells bonnets, blankets and hand painted children’s furniture.
All of their products have such a timeless feeling about them and could be used for many generations.
If you are interested in purchasing any of the products seen on the website, The St. Louis Women’s Exchange takes orders over the phone in order to make sure the sizing is just right for your child. www.stlouiswomensexchange.com.
The dress is not known for selling out, but will go on back order if not available. For all of the moms out there that are hoping to get one in time for Easter you may want to order soon!
The Tea Room is almost a famous as their garments, so if you are in the St. Louis area and are looking for a nice lunch stop in for one of their unique sandwiches and a slice of their award-winning lemon meringue pie.