SMU Design School: Part of Dallas’ Fashion-Forward Past

By Caroline Hafner

The Fashion Media minor has quickly become one of the most popular minors to take at SMU.  From fashion internships to fashion journalism classes, students are learning so much about the fashion world and the wonderful places it is headed. Many students believe that this is the first fashion-oriented area of study to come to SMU.

This summer as the DeGolyer library staff was going through archival material, they came across article after article about an SMU Design School, which was launched right after World War II and continued into the mid 1950s. During this time period, Dallas was quickly becoming one of the country’s most fashion-forward cities.

In an article from the Dallas Morning News in 1944, Lester P. Lorch, the president of  SMU’s Art Department, said: “The purpose of the school is to teach natives of Dallas, and the of the surrounding territory, technique in fashion designing, so that Dallas may depend on Dallasites for fashion and thereby do away with the importation of designers from other states.”


Joan Gosnell, a university archivist at the DeGolyer library, stated that at that time, New York, Los Angeles and Dallas were the three most significant cities for fashion in the United States, as they remain today. With Foley’s and Neiman Marcus both based in Texas, SMU was already in the center of a fashion-oriented city.

One primary goal the SMU Design School set out to accomplish was to find young designers within the university itself.  The university offered a wide range of classes –from costume design to pattern drafting — to allow these aspiring designers to hone their skills.

The professors challenged the students by holding annual fashion shows where students could show off the work they had created throughout the semester. The students took their designs from early sketches to finished pieces that were modeled on a runway.  The winning designer would receive a scholarship.

In March of 1948 the Dallas Morning News reported that “arrangements were made with manufactures to have scholarship holders work several hours each week in factories under direction either of the manufacturer or his designer to enable students to become more familiar with production methods.”

The SMU Design School was sponsored by the Dallas Fashion and Sportswear Center and while open, was one of the only four design schools in the United States. The school had 75 graduates after its first year, one-third of whom were working in the Dallas market.

The SMU Design School definitely shaped Dallas’ early ascent in the fashion world. All the young talent that went into the city upon graduation has helped Dallas grow into a fashion capital.


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