DANVILLE — The holidays always make me wonder what shopping was like before there were malls and big box retailers. I can just imagine all the department stores that lined North Vermilion Street, such as Meis and Carson Pirie Scott.
I was able to get a glimpse of what those grand department stores were like back in the 1950s and 1960s when I visited with Jane Starbody recently.
The longtime Danville resident was a professional illustrator who drew — by hand with a quill pen and ink — the line drawings of women’s fashions that dominated department store newspaper advertising back in the day.
The sharp dresser, who belies her nearly 89 years, attended Washington University in St. Louis from 1944-1947, earning an associate of fine arts degree.
In college, Starbody studied historic costume, color and anatomy, quipping, “If you don’t know how to draw an arm and a leg, you’re in trouble.”
A career as a fashion illustrator was sparked by her college roommate who majored in fashion design and Starbody’s own fashion-forward mother.
“My mother was quite the fashion plate,” she recalled. “My mother wouldn’t go anywhere without a hat on.”
Starbody had been attending college only three years when she had the opportunity to show her portfolio of fashion sketches to a representative of a well-known department store in St. Louis.
“I took my drawings to Famous-Barr, and she hired me on the spot,” she said.
“We drew every day from 9 to 5 at Famous-Barr,” she recalled. “We were given assignments. I don’t do infants or children, but I did do a few men’s ads. My specialty was women’s fashion.”
Starbody said she gathered inspiration for her illustrations by studying ads in the New York Times.
When she returned to Danville in the late 1940s, she drew ads for Meis.
“They had an ad man and an art director and I really learned a lot,” she said.
She eventually became the art director at Carson Pirie Scott in downtown Danville, where Pat Poulos worked as a merchandiser from 1955 to 1973.
“I bought accessories, ready-to-wear, sportswear, handbags and jewelry,” Poulos said. “That was back in the good old days.
“We bought what we thought our customers would like,” she said. “We were all about customer service, too. If someone was going to a party, we would find them their dress, their shoes and their jewelry.”
Poulos remembers “downtown was a busy place.” Besides Carson Pirie Scott and Meis, downtown Danville boasted Jules Strauss, Montgomery Ward, Sears, JCPenney’s, Parisian, The Fashion, Betty Gay’s and several men’s stores.
Poulos said Starbody was “talented.”
“I told her what I wanted and she drew up the ad,” she said.
Starbody recalled, “I would get the clothes and bring them home to draw the ads. Most of the time I drew at home at 2 a.m.”
Of all the apparel and accessories Starbody drew, she said bridal wear was the most difficult because it was always on a hanger and “it took a lot of time because of all the detail.”
After decades of drawing women’s dresses in the ’50s and ’60s, you would think Starbody would have something to say about the advent of women’s pants suits in the late ’60s.
“No, I just went with the flow,” she said. “Actually, I like slacks.”
Starbody culminated her 40-year career by illustrating ads for Joan Levy at Deutsch Uptown at 310-312 N. Vermilion St., where the Browse Around is located today. Levy’s husband, Paul, had been the manager at Meis and was familiar with Starbody’s work.
“It was high fashion and people loved her hats,” she said of Levy.
Before her career as an illustrator, Starbody remembers demonstrating a nifty brand new gadget called the paint roller at Bob Whelan’s paint store at 116-120 E. Main St., which eventually became Thomas Conron Hardware.
“Boy, that invention sure was a winner,” she said of the paint roller.
Starbody continued to work at Conron Hardware in the mid-1940s as a switchboard operator “to help out during the war,” and she also was in charge of running the Lionel train display at Christmastime.
Carol Roehm is the education reporter. Contact her at 477-5174 or by e-mail at email@example.com.