Elvira Harms (born 1876) grew up among fabric stacks, fashion illustrations, and crisp bustle creations. Her father, Edvard Winter, was a German who ran a noble women's tailoring shop in Oslo. Her mother, Swedish Matilda Kihlström, had experience in the confectionery industry. But the young, high-spirited Elvira had her sight set on a completely different career path - she wanted to be a singer. Her parents thought she should get a more proper education, at the Kvindelig industriskole (The industrial school for women), while being a novice at the successful tailoring shop. When Elvira was eighteen years old, her father suddenly passed away. For a short time after this, she and her mother ran a perfume shop, until Elvira headed to the cultural capital of Berlin to be a nanny. She stayed for a few years, educating herself in tailoring while working at a highly reputed tailor shop. At the end of the 1890s, she settled down in Stockholm and took employment at a company dealing in haberdashery. Eventually, the dark-haired beauty met her prince, Ernst Harms, inventory master at Grand Hotel. They married in 1902 and had three daughters - Elsa, Irma, and Karen. All three of the children later got involved in the successful family business: Tillskärarakademin.
So how come this married, forty-two-year-old mother of three started a private school of tailoring in 1913? It was the year before the start of the first world war. The new jazz and avant-garde art movement swept away the last remains of the previous century and cars began to replace the horses and carriages on the streets of Stockholm. The bourgeoisie women (still without the vote) strolled around in full-length costumes and wide-brimmed headdresses, next to the men wearing dark suits and bowler hats. Gunilla Larsson, the former first librarian at The Royal Library of Sweden, skillfully put the clues together from a wide variety of sources in "Elvira Harms and Stockholms Tillskärarakademi". In the article, you can read about how the energetic Elvira managed a haberdashery shop and atelier for the neighborhood wives in their residential area in Nacka when her children were still just toddlers. Later on, she started teaching sewing to the lady's maids of diplomat wives. After a crucial meeting with the politician and feminist Emilia Broomé, one of the pioneers of professional education in Sweden, Elvira decided to dedicate her life to teaching in a more organized manner. She returned to Berlin a few times to study pattern construction and tailoring before founding Tillskärarakademin, a school "partly for those who wish to receive full training, and partly for those who want to learn how to sew their own garments".
In the beginning, Tillskärarakademin exclusively offered courses in women's tailoring, but from 1918 and onwards you could study men's tailoring as well. That very year the school was granted government subsidies and a representative from the Sveriges Skräddarmästareföreningar got involved as an inspector. At the same time, Elvira is the only woman to be accepted to Sweden's first ever skräddarmästarekurs ( sartorial master class).In 1922 the growing academy moved into big, bright premises at Drottninggatan 71A, where it stayed until 1973. In addition to professional courses and amateur courses, an extensive pattern department was established, where the public as well as professional seamstresses and clothing companies could order their patterns. The customer came by with a picture from a fashion magazine and pointed at a model - who, during the roaring 20s, wore youthful, straight, flirty cuts with provocatively short hems. Measurements were taken, the pattern makers drew out the pattern and the customer got to take it home in a little bag. Another interesting novelty was the Department of Manikins. According to a German method you could order "the ideal bust" - a sample bust manufactured on-site made out of paper, accurate to the body dimensions. Well-traveled Elvira Harms was also frequently hired as a fashion expert by magazines like Nyaste Pariser Moder, Idun, and Husmodern. For a time, she was contracted as a fashion writer exclusively for Bonnier Publishing. It was obvious she had an eye for publicity and she even managed to get press attention for the recurring exhibitions showing the students' work, starting in 1924.
Through the years, Elvira Harms was strongly committed to civic affairs. For example, during the first world war, she operated "systugor" for the less fortunate. She also offered popular courses in "alteration and modernization of old clothing". In 1919, in Husmodern, you can read about "how to change a frock coat into a women's coat". During the second world war, when the lack of materials is blatant once more, she returns to the modernizing tips. In Svensk Damtidning she gives advice about how to complement the ration cards with twists and changes to old clothes. In 1943, in Idun magazine, she invites the readers to greet spring "in a new dress, preferably an old one restitched".The quality-conscious Elvira also worked for the professionalization of the tailoring profession. She was passionate about the issue that apprentice examination work should be mandatory for apprentices in the sewing and tailoring businesses. She diligently debated and made both friends and enemies in the tailoring industry.
One of Elvira Harms' grandchildren, Suzy Strindberg, remembers her successful, well-dressed grandmother as "resolute, dominant, impulsive and awe-inspiring, but at the same time generous and popular with the employees". She also recalls Elvira being "a companion who loved being the center of attention. She died while planning for her 75th birthday, which is so like her!".It was in 1951 that she passed away. Afterward, two of her daughters, Irma and Karen, took over the school's management. And in 1947, her daughter Elsa started a branch in Gothenburg. With her huge gumption, Elvira had constantly through the years managed to adjust the school's activity to modern times. In the late 1930s, she introduced training with an orientation towards customized tailoring and the ever-growing clothing industry. Her daughters followed in her footsteps and in 1957 they introduced "preparatory courses in pattern construction and needlework", designed for those who wanted to continue onto higher levels of education. But during the 1960s, the interest in the school declined. They had to compete for the students with new municipal vocational schools all the while more women entered their own career paths and it became less popular to do your sewing yourself. The new factory-made "pop" fashion, with influences from Swinging London, was purchased at boutiques or chains like Hennes. Profitability subsided and the Harms family decided to discontinue activity in the early 1970s. In 1972 Påhlmans Handelsinstitut took over the school's operation, and just a few years later the school's current director, Medborgarskolan, took over. During the 80s and 90s, the school was once again evolving, with courses in basic sewing, fabric science, and fashion drawing.
Today, a hundred years after the extraordinary Elvira Harms founded Tillskärarakademin, the business is once again up to high speeds. Always with the same focus on quality and craftsmanship.
Text: Susanna Strömqvist
Translation: Kajsa Pontén