I have something to confess. I’m one of those millennials who lives in a constant state of manufactured nostalgia for an era I was not alive to witness. I listen to Herman’s Hermits, wear plastic go-go boots, and say “boogie” non-ironically. I blame my father’s vast record collection and my mother’s vintage clothing business for my anachronistic aesthetic. But as it is- I thrive within it. And so, I was overjoyed to recently find in my mother’s collection a pink 1960s swing dress by designer Tiger Morse.
I hadn’t heard of her before, but Mum was quick to inform me that Tiger Morse was a household name in the 1960s. She knew that she operated a small boutique called “Teeny Weeny,” where my extremely hip Grandmother went on occasion for a colorful shift dress. She also knew that Morse had been a Warhol girl, and was featured prominently in one of the artist’s films. But, she warned me, information on the designer was scarce. She’d performed her own exhaustive internet search a few years back, with little luck. I decided to put my own research skills to use, and try to piece together a better picture of the effervescent designer.
Joan “Tiger” Morse opened her first boutique, A La Carte, in 1955. The location on 63rd and Madison was ideal for her upper-class clientele. She even designed a dress for Jackie Onassis, worn by the First Lady in 1962 for the benefit performance of the musical “Mr. President” in Washington DC.
That same year, the photographer Mark Shaw documented Morse’s fabric-buying spree in Asia for LIFE Magazine. The resulting photographs were on display in 2015 at Liz O’Brien Gallery on the Upper East Side, in an exhibit curated by Alan Rosenberg.
Morse was inspired by saris and kimonos in her early years, and frequently incorporated nonwestern fabrics into her designs. In retrospect, it is important to understand the colonialist impact of these appropriative fabric choices. Morse would soon take another route, one that would make her famous and was devoid of cultural fetishization: synthetics.
Mark Shaw’s photographs signal a key moment in Morse’s career, and in the character of the 1960s. Gallery owner Liz O’Brien describes it best. “Tiger herself in 1962 is still looking very prim,” O’Brien notes, “wearing smart little shifts and low-heeled pumps. She’s right on the cusp of counterculture and what’s coming next in fashion — and she’s creating it — but she’s still such the lady in the photographs.” You can see this in her form-fitting orange dress at left. From the front, the silhouette is classically feminine, cinching at her waist and cutting straight across her collarbone. In the mirror we are privy to the back of the garment. We see that the fabric plunges low beneath her shoulder blades- a daring choice emblematic of the changing times.
It’s fascinating to study transitional moments in history. After all, social norms and street style don’t magically change over night. They bend and shift and depart due to a complex variety of factors- economic, social, political, and cultural. By studying figures who lived through these transitional moments, we can better grasp the currents that pushed these transitions through.
Late 1950s Tiger Morse represented propriety, old money, and colonialism. In 1962, life was changing, and Morse’s designs began to signal this. Bright colors and bold sillhouettes were a frenetic response to frightening political conditions- The Cuban Missile Crisis made many Americans fear world war. In a year when John Glenn became the first man to orbit the earth, traditional modes of dressmaking were abandoned in favor of the futuristic. What this would mean for Morse would evolve over the course of the 1960s.
And of course, rebellion was everywhere. James Meredith was the first black man to attend the University of Mississippi. Bob Dylan performed his lament for freedom and peace, “Blowing in the Wind,” for the first time. Hugh Hefner’s playboy magazine and gentlemens’ clubs signaled the explosion of sexual liberation. Tiger Morse would follow suit; First, by replacing traditional fabrics with silks and lace from the Far East. Then, by eliminating fabric altogether. In the process, she hiked up skirt hems faster than Hefner put out magazines.
Morse sold her new designs at a few downtown boutiques, all catering to her flashy, new, swinging-sixties aesthetic. Teeny Weeny, Kaleidoscope, and Tiger’s Toys were filled with mini dresses made from paper, vinyl, aluminum foil, and mylar. Some were even strung with battery-powered lights and outfitted with a tiny battery pack. In perhaps my favorite display of ingenuity, Morse turned a shower curtain into a fabulous mini.
According to a 1966 article on Morse published in American Fabrics, the designer was “dedicated to the future and to the materials of the future, plastics, synthetics, glass, paper, found objects, and anything else that may come along.” Other sources recall Morse dying fur coats neon colors and printing “hate” and “love” on each side of a tight vinyl skirt. Her one of a kind garments could be several thousand dollars, though she sold at different price points depending on the materials used. Morse found quite the audience among wealthy, artistic, downtown types, in part due to her socialite antics.
Tiger Morse was a regular at Andy Warhol’s Factory. Like many of the Studio 54 crowd, she was prescribed dangerous combinations of amphetamines and tranquilizers by German doctor Max Jacobson, aka “Dr. Feelgood.” She quickly became an amphetamine addict. An overdose would kill her in 1972, at the age of forty, though she once said that she was “living proof that speed doesn’t kill.”
Until that fateful day she was a fixture of the downtown scene, dancing in cages and showing up at Max’s Kansas City in Union Square with a lunchbox full of drugs. Rumor has it she once fell into the pool at the Henry Hudson Hotel wearing entirely silver denim. “I work all day and I swing all night,” Morse once said.
She said quite a lot of things actually, in a 33 minute speed-fueled rant filmed by Warhol for Tiger Morse (Reel of ****). The monologue about politics, fashion, disco balls and “screwing” was later inserted into the larger film project, ****(Four Stars).
It was screened at MoMA recently, and can be requested through the circulating film and video library. However, it costs $80 to rent for a classroom and $190 to rent for an auditorium. Seeing as I have neither a classroom nor an auditorium, (or $100 to spare) I have been unable to view the film as of yet. I’m working on it and will most definitely publish an update if I get my hands on the tape!
Does it not seem strange, given Tiger Morse’s inventive designs, relationship with Andy Warhol, and historical relevance, that the designer has all but faded from collective memory? She was also one of the first fashion designers to open her own shop, and I have only found one Tiger Morse garment for sale on Ebay, Poshmark, and Etsy combined! You can find a Tiger Morse wedding dress and plastic dress at the Met. Another vinyl mini is in the collection of the Museum of the City of New York. And that is IT. I’m genuinely wondering if my dress belongs in a museum. I personally think it belongs with my pink go-go boots and clip on lucite earrings.
I honestly think I’m more offended about Morse’s absence from history books than the designer herself would be. After all, she did once say, “I’m a swan in a world of ducks.” And that’s just the truth.
Until next time!
P.S. This is an ongoing project so please feel free to contact me with any information you may have regarding the legend and queen that is Tiger Morse. Groovy.