Fashion’s Last Stand: Elinor’s

They are long gone, the chic shops, boutiques and haberdasheries that once dotted downtown in both Sherman and Denison. Probably the last upscale dress shop to close in downtown Sherman was The Vogue, operated by Joanna Kaufman. It was Sherman’s last vestige of downtown fashion, while Ringler’s in Denison held out until just this year with new owners, after long-time manager and second-generation owner Herman Ringler retired.

Read the related story about Ringler’s in Denison.

The crown jewels of Texoma chic, for women at least—men’s fashion doesn’t rate a “chic” designation—were Elinor’s and Ringler’s. Both stores built their success on designer labels and personal service. From the moment a woman stepped through the entrance of either, she was the center of attention. The well-trained sales people were always ready to serve the customer and remember her tastes and preferences. Both stores grew out of a time when American women were looking for some of the good life so long repressed by economic hard times and a world war. Both stores sought to bring a fashionable bit of the outside world to a corner of North Texas. ➝

Elinor and Dwight Gasway came to Sherman in the late 1930s after Dwight lost his job as manager of a large lumber company in Shamrock and then landed a position as the manager of Sherman’s Independent Ice Company at 310 West Houston Street. Elinor resigned her position as a teacher in Shamrock, and the couple moved to Sherman.

Elinor Jackson Gasway was a graduate of North Texas State College in Denton, with a degree in English and fashion design. After arriving in Sherman, she served as a substitute teacher for the Sherman schools, but her passion was fashion, and always had been.

Her creative efforts began when she was a teenager. When other girls were buying clothing, Gasway was designing her own. She saved pennies and bought fashion magazines and copied the latest dress designs. Often she sewed late into the night, completing a special outfit. She personalized and embellished her clothing with beautiful handwork. Fashion was her love.

Every teenage girl looks forward to that rite of passage when she buys her first pair of high-heeled shoes, and Gasway was no exception. She knew better than to ask her parents for permission, as her father was quite strict and would never consent to the extravagance and impracticality of high heels, so she found another solution.
Even then, she was an entrepreneur. She embroidered monograms on her friends’ handkerchiefs, charging them and saving every penny. With this secret money cache, she bought her first pair of high heels. Accentuating her fashion statement, the shoes were red. To prevent her parents knowing about the shoes, she stashed them away under a bridge. She retrieved them each morning on the way to school. Arriving at the school, she would put her old shoes in a school bag and then slip on the red shoes. One night there was a heavy rain, and Elinor’s red shoes washed away. In later years, at the height of her fashion career, her wardrobe always included a pair of red high-heeled shoes.

On September 25, 1941, Gasway followed her passion and opened her first shop in the newly renovated Binkley Hotel in Sherman. The lower floor of the hotel was subdivided into spaces for small shops with access to Travis Street. Gasway’s shop, Elinor’s, also had an entrance into the lobby of the hotel. This was an attractive feature, as husbands could pass the time in the hotel coffee shop or read the newspaper in the comfort of the lobby while their wives shopped.

Less than three months after the shop opened, America went to war, and high fashion was not only scarce, it was downright unpatriotic. World War II had a tremendous impact, changing the world of fashion forever.

There was a shortage of fabric, and women dressed “down.” Rationing became a way of life. The concept of separates was introduced during this period, to create the illusion of a woman’s having more outfits. Accessorizing and the use of sweaters and scarves became very fashionable.

Nylon stockings disappeared because the synthetic fiber was needed for the production of parachutes, ropes, and tires. Women coped with the shortage of nylons by staining their legs with a manufactured leg color and drawing a line down the backs of their legs to simulate seams. Color kits could be purchased in dress shops in a variety of shades.

With the end of the war, fashion came back with a roar. Following the period of imposed frugality, women who had scaled back were ready to replenish their wardrobes, and they wanted the latest fashions. Women’s clothing stores found they had a whole new group of customers. Many women who had entered the workforce during the war never returned to being fulltime housewives and mothers. There were now career women in positions all across the nation.

Woman’s fashion was forced to adapt to this change. Designers were challenged to create clothing that was not only professional, but feminine. Many a Rosie the Riveter was now Rosie the Boss and had to adopt a more professional attitude and look.

One of the most important influences on fashion was Hollywood. During the late forties and early fifties, Hollywood really discovered the career woman, and in the cutting-edge tradition of movie costume designers, career-minded, successful women were wearing fashionable women’s suits. But there was more to business than just business. Women also wanted their wardrobes to reflect a soft, feminine, and romantic image, the other side of the Hollywood style.

In Sherman, as Elinor’s enjoyed continuous growth and became a leading downtown clothing store, the business outgrew the small shop in the Binkley Hotel, and in 1946, when a building at 207 N. Travis Street became available, Elinor’s moved across the street.

Next door, at 209 N. Travis Street, the Gasways opened The Half Pint Shop, a children’s clothing shop. Both stores offered brand labels previously not available in the area.

Gasway promised her customers that her store would become bigger and better, and as “modern as tomorrow.” She announced on the first anniversary of the new store’s opening that her dream had come true.

A style show was held to mark the formal opening of the Bride’s Room on the mezzanine floor of Elinor’s. This room was decorated in blue, silver, and white, with just a touch of pink. The lavish interior decoration of Elinor’s and the ultra chic clothing lines left no doubt that high fashion had arrived in Texoma.
Models for the show descended a long flight of stairs to music by Maurine Parker.

“I wore a beautiful long pink formal in the show,” recalled Betty (Dean) Morgan. “I also remember modeling in a style show staged by Elinor’s in the Municipal Ballroom. Both my mother [Bernice Dean] and I frequently shopped at Elinor’s.”

Another model in Elinor’s anniversary show was Patti (Chapman) Olmstead, who wore an outfit from the Half Pint Shop and later, “I remember shopping at Elinor’s after I outgrew the Half Pint Shop.”

Margaret (Clark) Carson of Tyler grew up in Sherman. She was Elinor Gasway’s niece and also a model. “The fashion shows were by invitation only, and the shop was always filled with ladies eager to see the latest fashions featured in Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue.”

Another model was Margie (Evans) Eldridge. She was a customer too, and she remembered her very first lay-away in the summer of 1942. “I put five dollars down on a lovely yellow linen suit with rick-rack trim. I wanted to get the suit out of lay-away before Easter and didn’t have the money, so my mother bailed me out.”

In September of 1950, Elinor’s received the Brand Names Foundation Certificate of Merit. The award was based on Elinor’s advertisement in the Sherman Democrat on September 25, 1950, depicting consumer benefits of the brand-name system of distribution. This was the first such award ever received by a Sherman merchant and only the eleventh awarded in Texas. The certificate was presented to Gasway by Melvin Sisk, Sherman Chamber of Commerce manager.

Gasway had a flair for the dramatic, often changing the large display windows on either side of the front entrance to the shop to coordinate colors and accessories with holidays and changing seasons. And that was important, as window shopping downtown was as important as actual shopping. Lights illuminated the window display, and people strolling along the street could see the merchandise inside. This was advertising, too, and enticed the window shoppers to return to the store and purchase items they had seen in the window.

Gail Grigg recalled how her father, Paul Craven, a photographer with the Sherman Democrat, worked with the shop. “One of my most treasured pictures is a photo my dad took of Elinor’s show window. The window featured a travel wardrobe to wear on a trip to Cuba, and I remember it was so summery and cheerful. I always enjoyed going by Elinor’s just to see the latest window display. Elinor’s was a very high-fashion ladies’ shop in Sherman that could hold its own with Neiman Marcus in Dallas.”

For Grigg’s father, Elinor’s was more than just a photo assignment. He shopped there for his wife. “He always gave Mama special gifts on their anniversary, birthdays, Mother’s Day, and Christmas. I especially remember some costume jewelry, scarves, and other accessories, plus on some very special occasions, he gave her a more personal item such as a slip or gown. My father wasn’t shy about shopping in a ladies’ shop.”

After graduating from high school, Grigg worked for Shipp Motor Company in Sherman. “I learned more than I ever wanted to know about auto parts, but I earned eighteen dollars a week. In the early fall of 1953, I cashed a paycheck and actually went shopping at Elinor’s. I bought a lovely pleated skirt and stole set in wide and narrow stripes of multi colors, but predominately various hues of my favorite color, blue. With my next paycheck, I bought a sweater to match.

”My husband, Buddy, was in the army, and we spent two winters in Germany in the mountains, so the warmth of the woolen skirt, stole, and sweater was appreciated. I remember I wore my Elinor’s outfit on a train trip from Garmisch to Frankfurt while in Germany. I always felt I was quite a well-dressed traveler in 1958.”

Elinor’s sales people worked hard to make their customers, female and male, feel special. Blanch Inman was one of Elinor’s top sales women, and she often guided her clientele in selecting that very unique outfit with a little help from the “black book.”

Gasway kept the black notebook, which was filled with the names, sizes, and special tastes of all her customers. It also recorded special dates, such as birthdays and anniversaries. Husbands could depend on a gentle reminder from Elinor’s a few days before a special event, or a call to pass on to the husband that his wife had been in Elinor’s that day and been especially taken with a certain item in the store.

There were never “sales” at Elinor’s. Merchandise not sold or clothing out of season was sold to a discount cloth ing merchant, but only after all labels were removed. Gasway called him her “Scavenger Man.”

Gasway built her business by exemplifying her motto, “Elinor’s, Especially for You.” The store also provided extra amenities for customers, such as tissue in the dressing rooms, free gift wrapping, home delivery, and personal shopping trips to the fashion markets. Wooden hangers in Elinor’s were padded and wrapped in tissue paper. Family members recall spending hours at family gatherings wrapping hangers.

After Dwight Gasway’s death on August 30, 1951, Elinor was left to manage and operate the business alone. Her husband’s influence was missed, but Elinor’s continued to be the place to shop for those special outfits and personal service. Through the years, Gasway and her staff guided women through the many fashion changes. She was quoted as saying, “There is a big difference between tasteful fashion trends and temporary fads.”

After one buying excursion, Gasway and Martha Tredway, owner of Diaper Jeans, a children’s manufacturing company in Denison, decided to stop in Washington D. C. on their way home. They called Sam Rayburn to invite him out to dinner. They were surprised when Mr. Sam answered the phone himself, and though he declined their invitation, he sent his car and personal chauffeur to escort the two ladies around town. A mention of Mr. Rayburn’s name, and they were moved to the front of all lines. They even received a personal tour to observe the House of Representatives, with Mr. Sam presiding, in session.

Gasway was active in the community. She was a member of Altrusa International, a charitable society for business and professional women. She often reviewed books for local clubs and hosted fund-raising events for community charities. She appeared on local radio promoting education. She wrote a fashion column for the local newspaper, appeared on radio with a weekly fashion show, and was often a guest on the Dorothy Cox KXII television show.

When failing health forced Gasway to retire in 1962, there was no one to carry on her most personal of businesses, so Elinor’s, the shop, retired as well. Elinor Gasway, Sherman’s first lady of fashion, died in 1967.

The women who remember shopping at Elinor’s recall not only the clothes, but how special they felt as customers. Shopping at the store was a feel-good experience. How else can you explain why a woman can remember the style and color of an outfit she bought over fifty years ago? At Elinor’s it really was all about the customer. At Elinor’s the motto, “Especially for You,” was a reality.