Dottie wasn’t girly. Her sister Girlie was girly.
Dottie wasn’t fancy or frilly. She sought matching sweater-skirt combos more than lace and satin.
Dottie wasn’t even Dottie. She went by “Dor” or “Fritz” when she was younger and goes by “Grandma” now.
“Her sister was the one with the pearls and high heels while she vacuumed or whatever,” said Dorothy’s granddaughter and fellow ex-tomboy Stephanie Kuhr.
But when Kuhr turned her hand to “small and dainty” retro-vintage lingerie, there was only one perfect name for the younger tomboy’s company: Dottie’s Delights.
“This is kind of homage to my grandmother, but it’s sort of like our feminine alter ego,” Kuhr said.
In an artists workspace in an industrial part of West Town, as Ronettes Radio plays on Pandora to a room of ’40s lingerie, fetish books of German prostitutes and antique irons holding down panty patterns and sketches, the 30-year-old Kuhr designs lingerie capital L for the burlesque, for the mods, for the fanciful and fashionable.
Although Dottie’s Delights is best known for its vintage pin-up pieces, with straps and garters and Bettie Page thrills, Kuhr picks and chooses from the past. Some lines are more ’20s fetish than ’50s. Some bits of lacy fun are more Andy Warhol. Others are more Edith Wharton.
“I just have an affinity to old things in general, and I always have since growing up,” Kuhr said in the vintage ’50s house frock she tosses on on hot days. “I think for me it sort of like started maybe growing up in junior high getting into the ’70s thing and then a little bit more ’60s, a little bit more ’50s and just kind of kept going backwards.”
Her spring 2014 line is based on a Victorian B&B from 1883 she and her boyfriend came across in Dubuque, Iowa. The books she keeps in her studio to page through for inspiration range from the Weimar Republic to ’60s pop 3D.
It’s part of Kuhr’s balance, a term she keeps coming back to. She used it when talking about her switch from buzz cut and baggy ’90s jeans to vintage gear in middle school. She used it when talking about running from the lace and stitching of the fashion department down to the welding studio in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago basement.
And she used it when she saw the identically shaped runway agency models SAIC hires for students’ senior shows. There had to be something on the other side of that.
“When I was in school, I got really tired of just the same sad, stick-thin runway model and just the seriousness of fashion in general,” she said. “I thought it was very one-noted. So for my senior thesis collection, I did a burlesque-inspired collection. I did ‘Dante’s Inferno’ as a burlesque show.
“I chose my own models. I had all different types of girls. I had short and tall and really skinny and very voluptuous. I had twins. I had actual burlesque performers. And I just wanted to have a lot more fun with it.
“And as a result, I kind of taught myself lingerie from that, loved it and just kind of went with it from there.”
Where she went with it was to stage costuming, where she would make clothes for plays and have access to “this big, beautiful costume shop after hours.”
Then she applied to the Chicago Fashion Incubator, a year-long residency program giving six designers resources, connections and workshop space in the old Marshall Field’s building (fine, it’s called Macy’s, but I’m not saying “Willis Tower”).
The goal is to let the “Designers in Residence” explore as artists while developing as businesspeople. After the program, she and two other women from the program went in on a space together to start their respective businesses together.
Some from the program strike out on their own. Some just strike out. Dottie’s Delights is still going.
With lace and satin, garters and straps, Stephanie Kuhr looks for the past. She looks for balance through panties and bras.
The tomboy’s granddaughter wants to make the world more beautiful.
Also, so yeah. That was story #200. Check out a few past milestones.