Inaugural Gown Shopping In A Recession

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In Washington, D.C., next week, there will be hundreds of black-tie events. The fancy dress shops in the nation's capital are rolling out their wares for inauguration events. And in a city that still has places that do business the old fashioned way — perhaps no place caters to its clientele quite like Harriet Kassman.


Plenty of people will spend time at black tie events in Washington, D.C. next week. It's not just the inaugural balls, but also dinners and private parties and dances. The fancy dress shops in the nation's capital are rolling out their best wares, and in a city that still has places that still do business the old-fashioned way, maybe no place caters to its clientele quite like Harriet Kassman. NPR's Nina Totenberg and producer Gisele Grayson paid a visit last week.

NINA TOTENBERG: Here at Harriet Kassman, on occasion, you see judges, journalists, ambassadors, even cabinet officers accompanied by guards with plastic gizmos in their ear, and bulges beneath their suit jackets. The conversation is not about policy or politics. It's about something nearer and dearer to most women. Clothes.

Ms. FRAN NORRIS: I don't think I've ever bought a ball gown any place except here. So this one's gorgeous isn't it? About what size is that?

TOTENBERG: That's Fran Norris, who's shopping for a gown she can wear to an inaugural ball and the Washington National Opera's midwinter gala.

Ms. HARRIET KASSMAN (Clothes Designer): Go in there and try those on, and then we'll try some more on.

TOTENBERG: And that's Harriet Kassman, the 87-year-old dynamo who owns the store and prowls the floor chatting up whoever comes in. Part of the secret of her success is that Harriet could schmooze a sock. She gets to know her customers, their problems, their triumphs, what they need clothes for, what kind of work or play, and what they like.

Ms. KASSMAN: And I don't believe that everybody's rich, so we have to have things in every price range. In other words, if you want to spend $5,000 on a gown, we have it. If you want to spend $500 on a gown, we have it.

Unidentified Woman #1: I'm wearing the wrong jewelry.

TOTENBERG: In the middle of our interview, the wife of the Turkish ambassador, Gulgun Shassoy(ph), a petite brunette, dashes in for a fitting on her black chiffon inaugural gown.

Ms. GULGUN SHASSOY: I really love the dress. It's - what shall I say - a very appropriate dress, as my mother would say, for the occasion as well.

TOTENBERG: Meanwhile, Fran Norris, aided by saleswoman Miriam Houmani(ph), is trying on an array of gorgeous gowns.

Unidentified Woman #2 : OK. We're coming out.

Ms. NORRIS: Coming out. Wow.

Ms. KASSMAN: Isn't that beautiful?

Ms. NORRIS: Oh, isn't that pretty.

Ms. KASSMAN: Oh, you look absolutely magnificent.

Ms. NORRIS: Ah, that's pretty special. Isn't it? Wow.

TOTENBERG: Norris is wearing an African violet color, empire-style chiffon gown with jeweled details.

Ms. KASSMAN: And all you need is need is a pair of earrings which I'm going to bring.

TOTENBERG: Rhinestone dangle earrings with pink stones at the ear - Vavoom. Ah, fashion. For many of us women, it's our self-expression. But these are tough times in the retail business, especially for a small business like this one. Harriet Kassman.

Ms. KASSMAN: It's terrible. It's the worst I've ever seen. I've been through this up and down and sideways. I've never seen it like this.

TOTENBERG: Are you going to be OK?

Ms. KASSMAN: I better be. I'm determined to be.

TOTENBERG: Harriet Kassman has run this store for 33 years in Washington. But she comes to the trade by birth, as it were. Her father and mother ran a dress shop in Daytona Beach, Florida. In 1941, she was in school at the University of Georgia when her mother got sick.

Ms. KASSMAN: And so in those days, the girl comes home, not the boy. My twin brother continued in school, but I came home to help my father. And my mother died May 1st, 1941.

TOTENBERG: After a few months in the store, Harriet went to New York to buy the next season's offering.

Ms. KASSMAN: I knew nothing, absolutely nothing. I didn't know how much money we had to spend. And I didn't know what an older person could wear, or what a younger person - none of those things.

TOTENBERG: So she bought everything she liked in all sizes. And she fell in love with a new product on the market, beautiful sheer nylon hosiery.

Ms. KASSMAN: And I bought it as though I was a department store instead of a small specialty store. I bought it like I was a real big shot.

TOTENBERG: Her father was horrified at her gluttonous buys. Then boom, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the U.S. was at war. And along with rationing, clothing manufacturers limited all their customers to 25 percent of their buy in the previous season. So you got 25 percent of this enormous order.

Ms. KASSMAN: That's why I did so well. It only happens once in a lifetime.

TOTENBERG: This is Nina Totenberg in pre-inaugural Washington.

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