The photo, taken about 1900, shows the family of Agnes Bosse, the girl dressed in white, third from the left. Her father, Joseph Bosse (the tall bald man in the back) and his wife are surrounded by their children. They lived in South Baltimore on Light Street.
The photo, taken about 1900, shows the family of Agnes Bosse, the girl dressed in white, third from the left. Her father, Joseph Bosse (the tall bald man in the back) and his wife are surrounded by their children. They lived in South Baltimore on Light Street. (HANDOUT)

The Maryland Historical Society’s exhibition Spectrum of Fashion provided a very personal moment of revelation. As I walked past the fascinating display of clothing worn by Marylanders, I found a mannequin attired in a gown that a Downton Abbey character could have worn.

The accompanying text explained that the dress was custom-made for Alice Thomas Stevenson by Baltimore tailor and dressmaker Bettie Fuechsl in the era of President Teddy Roosevelt.

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That name, Fuechsl, was repeatedly on the lips of a family member who had worked for the couturier in the early years of the last century. That aunt, Agnes S. Bosse, was a devoted employee and dressmaker herself who joined the Fuechsl organization at age 17, after her graduation from Holy Cross School.

She learned at her mistress’s knee. It’s a small exaggeration to say that Agnes Bosse felt that Baltimore had gone to the dogs after Bettie Fuechsl’s death in 1923 at her residence in the Esplanade apartments. A family story perpetuated a tale that Wallis Warfield, later the Duchess of Windsor, was a Fuechsl customer. Warfield certainly lived close by the dressmaker.

Economics changed after the Fuechsl fashion house, at 1100 N. Charles Street, opposite the Belvedere Hotel, closed. Agnes was without a job. Articles in The Sun reveal that there was a bitter labor dispute there in 1915 and a sidewalk scuffle observed by Belvedere guests.

In the 1920s, my aunt opened her own dressmaking business with a partner, Elizabeth Schene, in Mount Vernon on West Monument Street. This lasted a while, but the Depression of the 1930s and World War II worked against her.

My aunt saw an opportunity in that war. She surrendered her notions of fancy embroideries and precious laces and boarded a Baltimore and Ohio Railroad commuter train for the Edgewood Arsenal, where she hand-sewed gas masks. She also made a good wage and earned a federal pension, facts she did not let you forget when she described her life.

My aunt, who was born in 1892 and lived until 1982, was a Baltimore type. She made her own clothes, but her outfits did not resemble the Alice Stevenson original at the Maryland Historical Society. Her dresses favored yards of small print fabric often touched up with rickrack edging. She pinned a cameo pin near the tuft of lace at her neck.

I often think of her face powder, lavender scented soap, hairnets and rimless glasses. She jokingly called these spectacles her nose pinchers. They fit the bridge of her nose like a tight paperclip.

She was a fine seamstress and, if possible, a better housekeeper. In her early 60s, she decided it was time to buy a house and found a charming rowhouse at 406 Folsom St., off Riverside Avenue (phone Mulberry 37-24), and a short walk to Federal Hill. The place she bought was a wreck, but Agnes became an old-house renovator before it was current practice.

The house did not directly overlook the harbor, but if you turned a head, you caught of a spectacular show of pre-Inner Harbor shipping. Loud blasts from ships’ throaty steam whistles reminded you that Baltimore was a working port.

Her front door was grained wood with an antique hand-turned bell that emitted a pleasant ding-a-ling. Her windows had slender, dustless green wooden shutters mounted on hardware she regularly oiled. The front door had shutters too that she closed for summertime ventilation. The home’s front wall was painted and the bricks outlined in thin paint along the mortar joints.

A meticulous housekeeper, she worked her embroidery scissors and needles over silk threads and made tasseled pull strings for her window blinds. Her cellar had a brick floor. It was spotless.

And until the end of her life, those two words, Bettie Fuechsl (Few-shell, as my aunt pronounced it) popped up more often in her conversation than “Edgewood Arsenal” or “gas mask.”

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