Frances et Frances, a Connecticut Avenue dress shop that catered to Washington's social set in the 1940s and 1950s, will shut its door next week.
Frances Manuel, who founded the shop in 1940, said in an interview yesterday that rent increases and competition from specialty shops in the affluent suburbs forced the store's closing.
As she walked toward the shop's window facing the avenue, Manuel talked about the early years of her store as if they had occurred a year or so ago.
"Dean Acheson (the former Secretary of State) would go by in striped pants (with) a cane on his way to the State Department." she recalled, pointing to the street in front of the window.
"Connecticut Avenue was uptown then. It was our Champs Elysee, even better," she said. Chauffeured limousines lined the street and from behind the curtained window, Manuel maintained a keen, but discreet of the avenue.
Initially, Manuel ran the shop with a partner, Frances Cooper - hence the name of the store.
In the quiet, elegant shop, customers would on sofas set against the wall as they waited for their selections to be brought to them. Now, clothing bins stand there, sparsely filled with warp print and gold brocade dresses, costumes from the 1950s and 1960s that went unsold, mixed with silk capri pants, a hobble-skirt dress with a cabbage rose at the hem, an Anne Klein mini skirt and studded polyester pants suits and silver jackets Manuel termed her recent "mistakes."
Her customer list reads like a who's who of the time. There was Cissy Le-Hand, a secretary to Franklin D. Roosevelt, for whom Manuel sent two maids to the White House with dresses for her to try. "None were ever returned," Manuel recalled.
Mrs. William Randolph Hearst, Liz Whitney, Eleanor Pillsbury, Gwen Cafritz, Cissy Patterson, Mrs. Willard Marriott Sr. were also among the clientele.
Mamie Eisenhower became a customer when her husband was still an Army colonel. "Military people don't have much money to spend," said Manuel, but Mrs. Eisenhower came in the store regularly with her mother or sister and bought conservative items.
Pat Nixon as the wife of the vice president would come into the store with a dressmaker to copy the Rentner, Zuckerman, Sondhein, and Traina-Norell style from her stock, insisting she could not afford the originals. "She had a turkey neck and was only interested in styles with high necklines," Manuel said.
Frances Manuel was a dress buyer at The Hecht Co. in 1940 when she took $3,500 in insurance money and opened the shop at 1315 Connecticut Ave. She had planned to open a shop once before, in Boston, where her family had emigrated from Romania. But her mother warned her that it would be an obstacle to marriage. Instead, she joined the training program at Filene's. After a stint as a buyer for a now-defunct sportswear chain in New York, Manuel came to Washington where her brother was stationed in the Army.
She had no trouble sensing the right clothes to buy for her shop. "I was brought up with beautiful things around me like black enamel beds inlaid with cloisonne," she said. "If you are familiar with these things while very young, you appreciate fine, beautiful things in every area."
The eight dressing rooms were filled with customers almost from the day the store opened. Customers who forgot to bring appropriate shoes would find a range of sizes and styles available in their dressing room. (There are still gold pumps in one of the dressing rooms, and a lipstick cover dispenser for customers to use to protect dresses from their red lipstick.)
Business fell off abruptly when works started on the Dupont Circle underpass in 1945. "We could have closed our doors," said Manuel, who considers the construction of the Metro as restrained compared with this earlier renovation. "There was no organization. They tore up our sidewalk at least three times," she said.
Manuel opened a second shop in Georgetown in 1948 but closed it three years later following a serious illness.
But business returned, perhaps even stronger when the underpass was completed in 1955. "There wasn't anyplace for a woman to shop but Rizik's and Pasternak's, also on the same avenue, too."
Although there were shorter length clothes in her stock mix in the late 1960s, Manuel never gave in to the "throwaway spirit of the Mod era," as she termed it.