From cowboy to couture
The history of downtown fashion
The Las Vegas settlers of the early 20th century had capital and gambled that they would make their fortunes with the arrival of the railroad. Many, especially the women, were well educated and well dressed. Early Vegas offered little in the way of fashionable attire or much of anything other than a general store. Families of means traveled out of town to purchase stylish wardrobes. Retail shops, concentrated on Fremont Street, grew along with the city.
Adcock & Ronnow department store was one of the first retail outlets on Fremont and it remained popular for 20 years. Will Beckley sold fashionable men’s wear. Other stores soon populated Fremont Street, and downtown was the shopping hub in Las Vegas for more than 60 years. There was little in the way of attire and fashion that could not be purchased downtown.
During the holidays, the local newspapers described the festive decorations adorning each shop along Fremont. In the early years, Will Beckley’s newspaper ads encouraged residents to shop downtown and support local businesses. In later years, Ronzone’s advertised Santa Claus’ arrival and scheduled a series of holiday events. Fanny’s exclusive fashions were popular for holiday parties.
Downtown became known as “Glitter Gulch” for its Western-themed gambling halls and entertainment, and it remained a shopping hub through the ’60s. Everything could be found downtown, from cowboy to couture. When Las Vegas expanded, malls and couture shops on the Strip and in the suburbs gradually replaced the Fremont Street establishments. Today, downtown has come full circle as a magnet for hipster- and vintage-clothing devotees.
During Las Vegas’ early years, from 1905 to 1920, fashionable women purchased their wardrobes, made to measure, from Los Angeles or New York City. Vegas’ commercial hub was concentrated on two blocks on Fremont Street and consisted of a general store that offered bolts of fabric and ready-made coats. Beauty salons, known as “toilet parlors,” constructed or refashioned women’s hats. Stylish women wore floor-length full skirts, sometimes pleated, with high-necked blouses with mutton sleeves and long, fitted cuffs. Flat straw hats adorned with flowers or feathers completed the outfit.
By the late 1920s, Fremont Street had grown as a commercial center. JCPenney opened a store on Fremont and Fifth Street (now Las Vegas Boulevard). Locally owned Adcock & Ronnow was a popular choice that lasted for about 20 years. Women’s fashions changed as hems rose scandalously to just below the calf, and dresses, made from light silks and satins, were unstructured and close to the body with drop waists. Hems were trimmed with fur, or scalloped and embellished with brocade. Cloche hats worn low over the eyes covered the new bobbed hairstyles. Will Beckley’s men’s store opened on Fremont and sold men’s gabardine and serge suits, Stetson and Panama hats and spectator shoes.
After World War II, rationing was discontinued and women’s fashion designers splurged on fabric. Hemlines were below the calf, and skirts and dresses flared from the waist. In 1947, Christian Dior unveiled “The New Look” in Paris using yards of fabric in full skirts that flared from the fitted waistline, creating the “wasp waist.” Women had an array of shopping choices in the Fremont Street area: Fanny’s, Ronzone’s, JCPenney and Johnson’s Department Store were steps from each other. Nina Clark and Sybil’s dress shops were on Third Street, and Florence Richardson’s Magic Eye was on Second. Pott’s men’s store was on Fremont. Downtown was the fashion hub of Vegas.
In the late ’40s and early ’50s, downtown casinos featured Western décor, giving the area the nickname “Glitter Gulch.” Benny Binion was recognizable by his Stetson hat, cowboy-style suits and boots, and Apache tie. Many casino dealers and locals wore cowboy shirts and bolo or colonel ties. Western wear was also popular with women who stayed in Las Vegas while waiting to get a divorce.
In the ’50s and early ’60s, California designers were influencing fashion, joining the cavalcade of New York designers who made their mark in couture. Fanny’s and Nina Clark sponsored fashion shows highlighting the latest couture, and fashion shows became popular fundraising events for local women’s clubs. Clark also wrote a regular newspaper column giving fashion advice. Downtown shops catered to all tastes. If a shopper couldn’t find an outfit in Nina Clark’s, Fanny’s or Ronzone’s, Chic Hecht (owned by the U.S. Senator) and Her Highness were close by. All were locally owned.
The pinnacle of Las Vegas glamour and fashion occurred on the Strip in the ’60s and ’70s. Maîtres d’ and waiters in showrooms and restaurants wore tuxedos. Male patrons were required to wear jackets. They wore serge suits, dress shirts and ties. Women wore cocktail dresses or gowns with furs and jewels. Las Vegas’ population expanded away from downtown, making it a less popular shopping destination. Fanny’s, Ronzone’s and new retailers operated stores in the hotels, and when the Boulevard Mall opened in 1968 it became the new shopping destination. One boutique on Main Street, Suzy Creamcheese, attracted Cher, Elvis and Stevie Nicks by selling pricey, one-of-a-kind Edwardian velvet jackets, studded denims, mini-skirts and macramé maxi dresses. Suzy Creamcheese was so iconic it was mentioned in the film Casino.
Downtown declined from the ’80s through the early 21st century, but Las Vegas has been known to reinvent itself. The arrival of online shoe and clothing company Zappos infused energy into the area. A new generation, mostly in its 20s and 30s, is embracing the hipster mode of dress. They troll Buffalo Exchange and other vintage stores on Main Street, purchasing plaid shirts with oversized scarves, grunge jeans, denim mini-skirts and Doc Martens boots. Fremont Street and downtown have returned to life.