They would come and sit on the rose velvet Victorian sofa, sipping Taylor sherry poured from a carafe. Conversation would lead to a discussion about clothes and then a few things would be shown by salesclerks.
This was the way women have shopped at Dorothy Stead in Georgetown for the last 30 years. Mrs. Alben Barkley, Perle Mesta and Betty Fulbright were among the regulars. And in the dressing room, if it was lunch hour, a maid would bring them coffee or bouillon. "Perle Mesta once asked for my bouillon recipe," Stead laughs. "I gave her a package of the instant powder from which it was made."
Stead, now 86, will shortly step away from the business she started in 1951, back when the trolley ran but before the vendors took over Georgetown streets and gridlock became a weekend peril there.
It was a quiet little town then, Dorothy Stead remembers, with few shops except Little Caledonia and Miriam Crocker's lampshade store. Dorothy Stead's place on O Street, first on one side of the street then the other, was a well-known meeting place as well as the shop to find a gown for a White House dinner, a debutante ball or graduation from the Madeira School. Often, it got so busy in late May that some of the fittings for the Madeira graduates were done at the Stead home on Q Street.
Lady Astor would drop by just about every day during her visits to Washington. "She'd buy everything including lots of costume jewelry that she brought home as gifts," says Stead, who once was surprised to see the Stead jewelry in a presentation of the Astor jewels. "On me they the costume jewelry look real," Lady Astor told her.
Jewelry was displayed in the shop in a white-enamel dentist's cabinet "which had a medicine smell for a long time," Stead recalls. Checks were written out at an old fashioned, flip-top school desk. Gifts also were sold in the store, and the white chocolate-dipped pretzels were a favorite hostess gift.
Dorothy Stead had gone to work at age 45 when her first husband, lawyer Parke Galleher, died. She had always liked clothes--"My mother said I had the best-dressed dolls"--and she made a few things of her own from patterns.
Her second husband, Bob Stead, was her business partner when she opened the shop "to give women more personal shopping service." But service went beyond the shop. Clothes would often be delivered with a fitter standing by to make sure the garment was 100 percent satisfactory. Until recently, there were five full-time fitters in the store.
"It is a very exciting business," Stead says. "One minute you are fitting a trousseau and the next minute you are selling a shroud."
Many of her customers kept coming back wearing clothes they had had for years. "My friends used to tease that I was in the wrong business," says Stead, who could never go along with the garment-trade philosophy she recalls as: "Sell them something today they will hate tomorrow."
"I love to see my customers in their 25-year-old Vera Maxwell dresses," she says.
She's retiring now because she wants to travel with her third husband, Maj. Gen. Lucas Victor Beau. "Sometimes I confuse just which trip I took with which husband," she laughs.
Stephanie Younossi, who owned a boutique in Germany, will take over the store on April 1. The name of the shop will still be Dorothy Stead. And the sherry will still be in a carafe.
"I plan to stop by and have some," Stead says.