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The Dressmaker Chase: Charlotte Makowski

Fashionable ladies with a Chrysler coupe, circa 1920s. From Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

If you’ve been reading Fashion Conservatory's Gazette, you know that when it comes to seeking out the stories behind unknown dressmakers of eras past, we have a real penchant for the chase. To us it doesn’t matter whether they lifted their needle because they had to in order to survive, or because they had a passion for creating beautiful garments for the ladies who lived in the places they lived. All of these invisible women deserve to have their efforts unearthed and made visible again. Bringing their labor to light and calling attention to their stories is a privilege and a joy

Bertha Lucas, date unknown. Via Ancestry

We’ve featured dressmakers of bygone eras quite a few times already, and if you haven’t read their fascinating stories you should definitely take the time to check them out and help us remember them. Bertha Lucas began her craft in Cleveland, Ohio, at the dawn of the twentieth century. The ladies behind the Ogle Gown Company of Colorado Springs - Emmadean Ogle, Mary Fraser, and Julia Patten - established their dressmaking house in the early 1900’s. Scottish dressmakers Jesse Farquharson and Margaret Wheelock designed for fashionable ladies in New York City and beyond into the Roaring Twenties, and Kathryn Vrooman seriously styled up Chicago from the mid-1920’s and into the 1930’s. All these ladies might not be well-known today, but they deserve to be.

The Times Leader. March 3, 1920.

Today we continue this tradition by featuring Charlotte Ladislawa (Makowski) Nowicki, who designed in the 1920’s and 1930’s under the name Charlotte’s Dressmaking Parlors in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania.

Luzerne County, Pennsylvania circa 1900

Charlotte was born around 1903 in Nanticoke, a mid-sized city in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, which lies roughly ten miles west of Wilkes-Barre. Her parents, Frank Makowski and Mary Cieszelski, were Polish immigrants who had settled in Nanticoke by the 1890’s. Frank made his living as a coal miner, a hard and hazardous profession with low wages. He may have either worked for the Susquehanna Coal Company or knew men who did, because in 1907, the company sold Frank a piece of property on Union Street in Nanticoke for $350. Members of the extended Makowski family were to live in the property for at least the next fifty years.

Coal miners in Pennsylvania, circa 1900.

It’s hard to overstate how industrious and ambitious Charlotte was. She had been exposed to the idea of dressmaking as a profession early. Her elder sister Lydia was dressmaking in their home before Charlotte was twelve, and by the time Charlotte herself was sixteen she began working for a private lady as a seamstress. She attended both Nanticoke High School and Wilkes-Barre High School, then swiftly continued her education by enrolling in the Wilkes-Barre Business School. At around the age of eighteen, in the fall of 1921, she graduated with a specialty in Shorthand.

But she wasn’t done yet….not by a long shot. 

1921 Chalmers sedan. From the National Automotive History Collection.

The summer after her graduation she took off “motoring” to Philadelphia and Atlantic City with friends of hers. (It’s fun to imagine what kind of car she motored in; there are plenty of deep web dives you can go on to help jumpstart your imagination, but this one seems especially interesting.) And given what we know about the next step in Charlotte’s life, it’s tempting to speculate her trip to Philadelphia with her friends was inspired by a desire to check out a new school which had just opened there - a branch residence school of New York’s famous Fashion Academy. 

Letter from Mrs. Emil Alvin Hartman (of the Fashion Academy), dated November 3, 1952. From the Jewish Women's Archive.

Founded in 1910 by Emil Alvin Hartman and his wife, Ann Hartman, the Fashion Academy taught design, styling and merchandising. It offered courses in Costume Design, Dressmaking and Design, Millinery Design, and Fashion Illustration. Pupils could enroll for long courses or shorter and more intense summer courses either at the residence schools in New York City, Philadelphia and San Francisco, or through home study.


The Philadelphia branch of the school had opened in October of 1921, just as Charlotte was graduating from Wilkes-Barre Business College. Perhaps Charlotte had seen advertisements for the new branch in issues of Harper’s Bazaar, or maybe she’d heard about the school during her time at the Business College. We don’t know. We also don’t know exactly when she enrolled in the school, which resident school she attended or if she chose home study, or what courses she took. What we do know, though, is that she did enroll, and she did graduate. And she did it prior to 1926.

We know that because, in March of 1926, the enterprising young twenty-something Charlotte Makowski opened her own shop.  

1926 Announcement, Wilkes-Barre Record.

When she opened Charlotte’s Dressmaking Parlors, the Wilkes-Barre Sunday Independent called her “one of Nanticoke’s prominent young business women '' and praised her eight years’ experience with fashionable shops in Wilkes-Barre as well as her knowledge of design and skill with a needle. Her shop was located at 179 S. Market Street in Nanticoke, next to the well-known Baicker’s Wall Paper Store. 

The Times Leader, April 18, 1927.

It appears the shop prospered during the next few years. In April of 1927, she placed another ad in the Wilkes-Barre Record. This ad highlighted her specialties in bridal wear and veils and noted her move up the road a bit to 11 S. Market Street, a location a little closer to Main Street. Charlotte made a number of trips to New York City on business, and in addition to running her shop, she began teaching evening sewing classes at Nanticoke High School. By 1930 Charlotte - who had remained living at home on Union Street with her parents and youngest brother - was able to secure her students an exhibit for their designs in the store windows of Strauss’ Furniture Store on East Main Street

Anniversary Announcement, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, the Evening News. June 19, 1936.

The next few years saw many changes in Charlotte’s life. In June of 1933 she married Edmund H. Nowicki, the proprietor of Voss Sales Company in Nanticoke. By 1940 Charlotte, her husband Edmund, and their infant son Robert were living in her childhood home on Union Street with her widowed mother Mary. The census taker asked Charlotte’s mother about the family unit; when she was asked about Charlotte's occupation, Mary stated she didn’t have one.

Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, the Evening News. June 24, 1933.

So what does that say about the status of her designing career? Well, we haven’t been able to definitively answer whether she continued designing after her marriage. The census says nothing about it at all, but censuses are hit and miss when it comes to accurately recording women and their professions, especially if the person the census taker asked wasn’t the person whose information was being recorded. We did find two intriguing newspaper articles about her third and her fourteenth wedding anniversaries (in 1936 and 1947, respectively). While both call her a modiste, they do so only after placing her in a context as the “former Charlotte Makowski.” We’re simply not provided enough extra context to make a determination. So, without confirmation by other sources? It’s best to say we just don’t know.

The Tribune, Scranton, Pennsylvania. June 30, 1953.

The chips probably fall on the side of giving it all up. In those days it was socially understood a woman would give up a career or a job when she got married. If Charlotte had continued designing and owning her own business as a wife and mother, it wouldn’t have been unheard of; designers like Nelly Don managed to create space for both a career and a family. But women like Nelly were the exception. Most women - even women as determined as Charlotte was to carve out a niche for herself with education and business ownership - often felt they had no choice but to leave everything behind when they walked down the aisle. So far, we don’t know Charlotte’s ultimate decision

Charlotte certainly had a full life, though. She raised two sons, helped her husband Edmund run the two businesses he had in Wilkes-Barre and Nanticoke, taught Polish classes at Luzerne County Community College for a decade or so, and retired in 1972. She died in 2001 in Wilkes-Barre, and was buried at the Holy Trinity Church in Nanticoke.

Obituary in The Times Leader; March 7, 2001.

Patricia Browning received her archival postgraduate degree in Information Management & Preservation from the University of Glasgow. Her lifelong fascination with research saturates nearly every aspect of her life. These days - when she's not nose-deep researching vintage fashion labels - she can be found doing genealogy or developing a podcast about her pet project, David Tennant's early theatre career in Scotland. 


Business College Commencement To Be Held Oct. 18.” (15 October 1921). The Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader, The Evening News [Wilkes-Barre, PA], p. 16, image 16. Retrieved 26 Oct 2021 via

Classified Ad. “Nanticoke: Dressmakers.” (18 April 1927). The Wilkes-Barre Record [Wilkes-Barre, PA], p. 20, image 20. Retrieved 25 Oct 2021 via

Large Class To Graduate.” (15 October 1921). The Evening News [Wilkes-Barre, PA], p. 3, image 3. Retrieved 26 Oct 2021 via

Marriage Announced.” (24 June 1933). The Evening News [Wilkes-Barre, PA], p. 18, image 18. Retrieved 26 Oct 2021 via

Makowski, Charlotte. "United States Census, 1920," database with images. FamilySearch. Pennsylvania > Luzerne > Nanticoke Ward 11 > ED 135 > Sheet 21B > line 89 > image 42 of 50; citing NARA microfilm publication T625 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).

Nanticoke: E. H. Nowicki’s Observe 14th Anniversary.” (19 June 1947). The Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader, The Evening News [Wilkes-Barre, PA], p. 29, image 31. Retrieved 25 Oct 2021 via

Nanticoke: E. H. Nowicki’s Observe 14th Anniversary.” (19 June 1947). The Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader, The Evening News [Wilkes-Barre, PA], p. 29, image 31. Retrieved 25 Oct 2021 via

Nanticoke: Night Schools To Begin.” (9 October 1928). The Wilkes-Barre Record [Wilkes-Barre, PA], p. 24, image 24. Retrieved 26 Oct 2021 via

"Nanticoke: Notes And Personals." (6 June 1930). The Wilkes-Barre Record [Wilkes-Barre, PA], p. 27, image 27. Retrieved 25 Oct 2021 via

"Nanticoke: Opens Dressmaking Parlors." (7 March 1926). Wilkes-Barre Sunday Independent [Wilkes-Barre, PA], p. C-12. Retrieved 25 Oct 2021 via Osterhout Free Library - Wilkes-Barre Sunday Independent Newspaper 1915-1958.

Nanticoke: Sewing Exhibit.” (3 March 1930). The Wilkes-Barre Record [Wilkes-Barre, PA], p. 20, image 19. Retrieved 26 Oct 2021 via

Obituary. “Charlotte Nowicki.” (7 March 2001). The Times-Leader [Wilkes-Barre, PA], p. 8A, image 8. Retrieved 26 Oct 2021 via