In the 1920s my great-grandmother was a leading fashion designer in the Midwest

Feb 29, 2016 at 3:00 p.m. ET
Image: Grace Tancill Designs, Promotional Photo

I still have boxes of lace and buttons my great-grandmother Grace left behind, lingering like shadows of a world I never knew. She died in 1965, months before I was born, her life history playing as a background script throughout my life.

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I feel her spirit whenever I walk into the old adobe cottage originally purchased by my great-grandparents. My mom lives there now, and for three generations, this tiny home on the California coast has been the place my people go to live when they’re done with the big city or just need a change in their life. That’s how Grandma Grace ended up there. After decades as a fashion designer and businesswoman, she chose to retire from her successful design company in St. Louis to start a new adventure in California, pulled by her love of stone houses and a desire to be nearer to her only child (my grandmother).

My great-grandmother was a woman who knew what she wanted, and she wasn’t afraid to go after it.

Grace Tancill was a small lady with a huge personality and an ambition uncommon in women of her time. She didn’t start off advantaged or from a family of entrepreneurs — she was simply an average woman in the 1920s who liked to sew her own clothes. Her creativity and talent caught the eye of many ladies in St. Louis. Before she knew it, Grace Tancill Designs was born and she was employing other women to help her business grow.

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Grandma Grace dreamed big, traveling to Europe to visit the finest fashion houses, and bringing my grandmother along with her. With steamer trunks full of beautiful designs, Grace made a name for herself by creating dresses out of wool jersey and using sisters from the local convent to do her intricate handwork. For decades, Grace Tancill Designs hosted private fittings for the most respected women of the Midwest, eventually growing so successful my great-grandfather left his own career to manage the thriving company.

My great-grandmother created her own life, following a desire to be more than those who came before her. She, along with so many women in the 1930s and ’40s, took advantage of the opportunities to join the workforce and begin to break down the female stereotypes that required civility, meekness and a certain sort of knowing one’s place in the world. She was the original entrepreneur, breaking the mold of how society imagined women to be and leaving a legacy for generations to come. At that time, women were unlikely to be the head of a household, own businesses or be divorced — and Grandma Grace was all three.

Living my life with the spirit of my great-grandmother lingering in the background propelled me to create my own world, too. Not content to be in the shadows, I know that, like Grace, my future is mine to create, and my world is infinitely more possible because of her courage.

I can just imagine Grandma Grace and her ladies together, teacups in front, maybe a flask at their side, discussing their desire to be themselves despite what conventional stereotypes might have dictated for women at the time. They were a sort of modern-day book group — without the book but with the drinking. I like to think she would have agreed with people like Bertrand Russell, who said, “Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.”

I have to believe a bit of her independent spirit lives on in me today. I think she would have liked that.

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