“Mom has the most keen eye for beauty,” says Genie Welch in Ashley Callahan’s forthcoming book, Frankie Welch’s Americana: Fashion, Scarves, and Politics. Callahan, a decorative arts scholar, uses interviews with Welch’s family and archival research to reveal a detailed biography of Frankie Welch, the Georgia-born designer, stylist, and creative entrepreneur, who died last year at the age of ninety seven.
The book also shares photos and the stories behind Welch’s gorgeous and iconic silk scarves, and the University of Georgia is displaying a retrospective exhibit of Welch’s work online and in the galleries at the UGA Special Collections Building in Athens until July 8.
Welch, who was born and raised in Rome, Georgia, moved to Alexandria, Virginia, and became a sought-after stylist from the 1960s to 1990s, pairing her love of modern design with her social skills and business savvy. She counted among her clients the First Ladies Lady Bird Johnson, Rosalynn Carter, Betty Ford, and Pat Nixon.
Welch took cues from Italian streetwear, the aesthetic of her idol, the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and the iconic wardrobe of Jacqueline Kennedy, scouting out versatile, elegant wardrobe pieces for the working woman. She also designed scarves for politicians, pursuing the growing desire for these lightweight accessories, which were especially popular in France. “Her legacy is in how she combined fashion, business acumen, social connections, nonpartisan-ship, and a multitude of scarves to define her own career and fill it with constant change and creativity,” Callahan writes in the book.
Welch turned to her Georgia roots when, in 1967, she created White House and State Department gifts at the request of Virginia Rusk, the wife of Secretary of State Dean Rusk. While imagining a “truly American” design, her mind returned to Rome, Georgia, and she printed the Cherokee alphabet on her new silk scarves. Welch, who had seen the alphabet in a book that recorded the history of her hometown, considered it “the original American language.” She crafted graphic, sinuous characters on ivory silk, framing them in rich earth tones. The print was an instant hit, growing so popular that she adapted it into the form of flowing, belted dresses, longer scarves, and coat linings.
Welch, who identified as part Cherokee, often spoke and wrote about her heritage and shared family stories, all of which became an instrumental part of her design and career. She donated a portion of her sales to an education fund for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Native people, such as Cherokee Nation Principal Chiefs W. W. Keeler and Wilma Mankille, along with the activist LaDonna Harris, cherished and wore Welch’s alphabet design. Harris, who became a friend to Welch, even stated that her Cherokee Alphabet design was an inventive “conversation piece” for Native American causes.
From local organizations to large-scale political campaigns, Welch’s scarves helped advertise groups, garden clubs, restaurants, and presidential candidates, while also functioning as wearable pieces of art. Southern colleges commissioned her for alumni gifts, and she developed place-specific prints for campuses such as the University of Virginia, Washington & Lee University, and the University of Alabama. Often working with a palette of the schools’ colors, Welch wove familiar architecture, such as UVA’s iconic Rotunda and W&L’s Colonnade, with the schools’ motifs for beautifully detailed prints.
Even without the direction from Southern organizations that often commissioned her, Welch tapped into her roots. She adored her home state, “sometimes taking a jar of red dirt back to Virginia after a visit to Rome to remind her of her Georgia home,” Callahan writes. Influenced by Lady Bird Johnson’s collection of Tiffany and Co. White House dishware, she designed the Fifty State Flowers scarf in 1967. Though every state is represented on the scarf, she planted her love for her home state front and center: vibrant bouquets and streams of handwritten names framed the Georgia flower, an individual Cherokee rose.
Welch spotlighted another Georgia symbol, the humble peanut, for President Jimmy Carter’s political campaigns. For the first version of the design, organic forms of overlapping tan peanuts debuted for Carter’s 1973 gubernatorial run, and his wife, Rosalynn, proudly wore a long dress with the pattern. During Carter’s presidential tour, Welch revisited the peanut pattern with playful checkerboard-like rows for the Democratic National Committee.
Welch donated many of her scarves to the University of Georgia’s Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library in Athens and the Rome Area History Museum in her hometown, the two largest archives of her work.“Her scarves constitute a unique body of work in the history of American fashion,” Callahan writes. “They are a distinct and delightful expression of Americana.”