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Athens News Matters: The Complex and Prolific Legacy of Designer Frankie Welch

Some of Frankie Welch's iconic designs are on display at the University of Georgia's Special Collections Libraries. Welch's first and most popular scarf design is displayed on the skirt in the center of the display.

Jan Hebbard is a big fan of Frankie Welch.

“I caught Frankie fever. I’ve been staring at them for so long that I wanted some too. This one is the Betty Ford scarf, so I thought that was cool because I know about the connections between she and Betty Ford. It comes in different colors, but I was a fan of the blue and green so that’s why I picked this one.”

Hebbard is the exhibition coordinator for the University of Georgia Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Frankie Welch and her decades long career as an American textile, accessories, and fashion designer is the subject of an exhibit at the Hargrett. The exhibit is curated by Ashley Callahan another fan of Welch, and an independent scholar and curator who is also the author of the book Frankie Welch’s Americana, copublished by the University of Georgia Press and Georgia Humanities.

Hebbard and Callahan meet me at the exhibit; and of course, both are wearing scarves designed by Welch.

“I have on one of the UGA scarves. So it’s got like a round seal with the arch in the middle just repeated in a grid on the scarf.”

Camie Williams, University of Georgia Libraries
Scarves designed by Frankie Welch for the University of Georgia, on display at the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library Gallery

Welch was born in Rome, Georgia, but spent most of her career in Alexandria, Virginia, where she had a dress shop from 1963 to 1990. Starting as a wardrobe advisor to women around Washington, DC—often wives of statesmen who were frequently photographed. Welch naturally expanded her business to designing for the political elite.

There’s her ‘Discover America’ scarf designed for the White House, as well as an inaugural scarf for President Nixon, and many designs for her good friend, first lady Betty Ford.

Welch’s custom scarves are especially memorable. Originally square and made of silk or cotton, the material and shape evolved through the decades. Here’s Welch in an interview late in her career:

“Send me your corporate seal or in the case of the National Cathedral what you think would be an appropriate theme. I take that, put it on an 8-inch square and now as it is on a bandana that’s 22 inches. They send a design fee, I design and send it back to them. And it’s done by mail and telephone really. And the check is in the mail. That’s very important.”

Camie Williams, University of Georgia Libraries
Photo of Frankie Welch from the exhibit at the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

An astute businesswoman, Welch embraced both the commercial and historical possibilities of design. After documenting 1960’s presidential events, Welch expanded her business to designing for large corporations, small businesses, local organization and even universities—all providing a glimpse into America’s institutions. No matter the subject, Welch’s designs sent a message, says Callahan.

“So, it was a way to communicate, to communicate your interests and what you’re involved in and what you’re affiliated with.”

Near to Welch’s heart was her home state of Georgia, a subject she often returned to in her designs. Like this scarf for Lady Bird Johnson, as described by Welch.

“And people say why is the flower in the center so large? It says Cherokee Rose, the big one in the center. And I say well, I’m Cherokee, the Cherokee Rose is the flower of my state, I’m the designer and I’ll put it where I want to.”

Fifty State Flowery scarf designed for Lady Bird Johnson.

Welch’s first scarf and most popular item is known as ‘the Cherokee alphabet’. It was commissioned by Virginia Rusk, wife of then Secretary of State and Georgia native, Dean Rusk, and designed for the White House and State Department to hand out as a gift. ‘The Cherokee alphabet’ scarf was inspired by a photo of the writing system created by the Cherokee scholar, Sequoyah. The design of the scarf was intended to represent something ‘truly American’, says Callahan.

“Frankie believed based on oral history and the stories that her family told her that she was part Cherokee…. Current genealogical research does not support that connection.”

Welch also designed jewelry and other items with Native American inspired designs. And that’s a problematic part of her legacy, whether its intentional or not.

“So today, we would recognize that there are elements of cultural appropriation in this,” says Callahan. “We are presenting it as it is and just trying to provide some context for what was going on.”

Exhibition coordinator Hebbard says she has not shied away from the issue.

“It’s not like we would exclude these designs. The Cherokee alphabet was her most popular scarf of all time and the way she got into designing. But we thought it was important to present it and then to sort of explain it as best we could.”

Callahan adds that some prominent Native American women wore Welch’s designs. LaDonna Harris, for example, a Comanche Native American activist, often wore Welch’s ‘Cherokee alphabet’.

“She said by wearing that design, you know, it’s kind of an unusual design, and people would ask her about it,” said Callahan. “And it gave her an opening to be able to talk to people about Native American rights and issues.”

The cultural appropriation piece is part of the fabric of Welch’s legacy, but Callahan says, it’s important to see the whole picture of Frankie Welch.

“A successful female entrepreneur kind of hoeing her own road, making her own career and was a role model to a lot of women.”