LIFE STORIES

She dressed our cowboys and ones in movies

Gloria Wallace added creativity to women's wear, too, since 1950s
2011-01-28T00:00:00Z She dressed our cowboys and ones in moviesKimberly Matas Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
January 28, 2011 12:00 am  • 

Gloria Wallace wasn't about to close out her cash register until she made at least one sale.

If it was a slow day at Wallace's Cowboy Outfitters in downtown Tucson, she'd grab an armload of cowboy shirts and walk down to the Santa Rita Hotel. The bar was a popular hangout for cattlemen in the early 1950s. It was where livestock auctions were held in, with the steers and quarter horses led right into the lobby. Wallace would chat up the ranchers as they nursed their beers until she persuaded one of them to buy a shirt.

"She was a high-powered salesperson," said her daughter-in-law, Mary Jean Wallace. "She had so much spunk and life."

Stories about the businesswoman and clothing designer will be shared during a memorial service beginning at 10 a.m. Saturday at Adair Funeral Home's Avalon Chapel, 8090 N. Northern Ave. She will be interred Monday alongside her husband, Dean Wallace, at the Southern Arizona Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Sierra Vista. Wallace died on Jan. 18. She was 89.

Gloria and Dean met at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Dean was a fighter pilot who frequented the commissary where Gloria was the cashier. They wed in 1943. After Dean's discharge from the military, he took a job at Hughes Aircraft while Gloria clerked at Levy's department store downtown, where she also modeled "ladies better dresses."

By then parents, the Wallaces wanted a better life for their children, Candace and Steve. When Gloria was presented with the opportunity, she bought a downtown Western wear store, changed the name and served as proprietress of the family business for the next 34 years.

"John Wayne used to go in the store and sit on saddles - and Lee Marvin; a lot of stars who came to town who were staring in cowboy movies had to go into the store and get fitted," said the Wallaces' daughter, Candace Roll.

It wasn't unusual to find the likes of Wayne, Marvin and Ben Johnson sitting in the back of the store drinking coffee and chewing the fat, said Steve Wallace, whose father once fitted Raquel Welch with a pair of boots.

"We used to get a lot of movie business," he said. "It was a different time. It wasn't uncommon to see (stars) wander in."

In the '50s, ranching and farming were a way of life in Tucson, and Wallace's was a one-stop shop for cowboy boots, Western wear, horse tack, turquoise jewelry and specialty items sought after by rodeo queens and competitive riders.

To attract more women to the store, Gloria began carrying long, pleated skirts that were the everyday wear of many Native American women in Arizona. She also modified high-waisted denim pants for women, cutting foot-long slits from the hem up along the outside of the pant legs and inserting colorful flared material. The material was attached to the inside of the pant leg with snaps, so the fabric could be changed to match a woman's blouse.

While Gloria ran the shop during the day and sewed pants at home in the evenings, Dean ran the saddle shop. The couple also traveled to large rodeos and livestock shows selling their wares. Eventually, the Wallaces owned three stores in Tucson.

When they bought the first Western wear store, ranches and farms were a primary source of income in Southern Arizona, and movie makers were flocking to the desert. Yet even as those industries waned, it was Gloria's belief in personalized service that kept customers loyal, one of Wallace's former employees said.

Joyce Clark worked at Wallace's for 34 years.

"They were well-known, and they were fair to all the customers," Clark said. "She taught me how to wear Western clothes - that's for sure." She learned it was the Western way to wear jeans "tight to show off your shape."

Gloria also taught her to shape cowboy hats, keep the books and run a business.

"She was like an older sister," Clark said. "She was so kind to me, willing to teach me anything."

To suggest someone for Life Stories, contact reporter Kimberly Matas at kmatas@azstarnet.com or at 573-4191.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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