By SAMANTHA SMYLIE
At the age of 98, Jean Smith is still very active in her community and still has her passion for fashion. Upon meeting her, she wore a colorful dress that she stitched together from two scarves that she brought for $19 each. You could hardly tell that they once separate items because they were stitched together perfectly.
Smith was born on April 18, 1921, and she was raised in Woodlawn. Her parents both migrated from the south to Chicago — her father was born in Texas and her mother was from Georgia — and meet in church. Smith was one of six children (three girls and three boys) from her parents’ marriage. She attended James McCosh elementary School, later re-named Emmett Till Elementary School, and Englewood High School. Due to segregation, Black children from Woodlawn were not able to attend Hyde Park Academy.
“They wouldn’t allow us to go to Hyde Park Academy and they wouldn’t allow us to go to Parker,” she said, “so we had to walk to Englewood, which was about three miles.”
As a child, Smith’s mother sewed clothes for her and her siblings. Once Smith got older, her mother was not able to make clothes for her any longer, so she took up sewing. In 1966, she decided to take a class at the English Tailoring and Fur Boutique. Her favorite pieces of clothing to make are suits and coats, especially fur coats.
While taking the class, Smith became involved in the Haute Couture Club of Chicago. It was a way for all the women in the class to get to know each other. When the club started, only two Black women were members, one of them being Smith. Every year since its inception, the club has hosted a fashion show, and each year it has grown in popularity. Smith said, “We used to charge 50 cents to get in. Now we charge $65.” The club celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2014, and Smith showcased a few of her pieces.
When asked what inspires her to create a piece of clothing, she said “Well, first is the fabric. I love good fabric and we’d have to go down to where the tailors were on Van Buren to buy the type of fabric that we like. If you sit down and make a dress and use cheap fabric, the dress is not going to look anything like anything. And then you’ve lost time, you know? Yeah. So, I always went down there and bought my fabric.”
Smith’s passion for fashion has allowed her to travel to France, Spain, Italy, countries throughout Africa and China. During her interview with the Herald, she noted that she traveled twice to Hong Kong because she adored the fabric that she bought there.
Her advice for anyone who wants to sew as a hobby, Smith says “Well, first you have to want to learn. I mean if you sew you have to like it because if you don’t, you put it aside and you will not pick it back up.”
Smith has lived in Hyde Park for the past 27 years and loves it, “You’ve got everything here. Whatever you want you can find it in Hyde Park. My husband I am had a bungalow with three floors and that’s a lot of walking up and down, you know. So, we wanted to get a place where we could be motivational and have elevators.”
While sewing pieces for the club and making her own clothes, Smith had a job at the Chicago Board of Education as a clerk typist for 38 years and then at McCormick Place for 25 years. Since she retired, she uses every moment to get out of the house to visit with friends, whether she is playing bridge or going to church.