Woman’s Exchange gets trademark for iconic cherry dress

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The iconic cherry dress sold exclusively by the Woman’s Exchange in St. Louis has been worn by the children of national leaders, celebrities and well-to-do St. Louisans for more than 50 years.

Now, it has federal trademark protection, a move to stave off a recent rise in knockoffs.

Thompson Coburn associate Justin Mulligan wrote the 60-page brief that ultimately made the trademark possible. The law firm handled the case pro bono after the exchange approached them to explore possibilities to keep others from profiting on the design.

Elizabeth Southern, chairman of the board for the Woman’s Exchange, said they needed the protection because local women make a living sewing the $120 dress, and it now helps support a refugee and immigrant training program. According to the exchange, 70 percent of the proceeds from the dress are given to the makers, who invest 10 to 12 hours to construct each garment.

Although the exchange doesn’t share the names of the women who contribute handmade goods to the shop, Elanora Lee Dressel, known as Ellie, was loud and proud about her history making the cherry dress.

For 30 years, Dressel, of Hazelwood, was the only maker of the famous frock. In a 2012 New York Times article, she said that she made about 450 a year. The exchange still produces more than 400 of the custom-ordered garments each year. It’s been a perennial Easter classic at country clubs since its debut.

The boy’s cherry button one-piece version was photographed on John F. Kennedy Jr., and Gwyneth Paltrow ordered a dress for her daughter, Apple. Two little girls also once wore cherry dresses to present flowers to the queen of England.

Dressel died at the age of 73 in June, and the current seamstress for the cherry dress is Kathy O’Neal, 48, of Des Peres. O’Neal is newly a grandmother and was looking for a means to make extra money. She first started sewing items for the Woman’s Exchange of St. Louis 20 years ago, but she stopped to raise her three children.

She returned just as Dressel’s health took a turn. O’Neal says that she has been making five to eight cherry dresses a week since May.

O’Neal gets a little help with production from the exchange’s Immigrant Training Program. Afghan women are learning to create some of the bright red cherries that decorate each dress. Each set of cherries takes more than an hour to make, Southern said.

The cherry dress is a simple box-pleat frock in white cotton, with a red-piped Peter Pan collar, a snap closure and four paired cotton cherries stitched down the front. No one knows the origin of the design or why it became a signature of the St. Louis women’s collective. But exchanges, or shops, selling women’s work across the country were once staples, and each had signature pieces.

The history of these types of shops with connected tea rooms dates to the post-Civil War era when a generation of men were killed or severely wounded and women needed a way to make a living. The exchanges offered women, many of whom wanted to protect their social status and standing, a discreet way of earning money. The tradition of anonymity continues (about 100 women contribute a variety of items to the shop), although Dressel was proud of her work with the exchange and the fact that it allowed her the means to stay at home to watch over her son, who had cognitive disabilities.

O’Neal, who also chooses to shun anonymity, said, “I just think it’s so cool to be a little part of this really historic thing.” And she wasn’t intimidated that the last two cherry dressmakers worked into their 70s.

In a 2012 book, “The St. Louis Woman’s Exchange: 130 Years of the Gentle Art of Survival” by Jeannette Batz Cooperman, Dressel explained that she took over the cherry-dress-making after the previous seamstress, who was in her 70s, fell behind schedule. The woman’s brother was dying, but she was so committed to making the dress that she refused to give Dressel the pattern. So the exchange gave Dressel one of the dresses the woman had produced instead. She took it apart to learn how to construct others.

Now, her design will live on in perpetuity and exclusively in St. Louis.

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