Judith Nash believes Alyce Hamm was a big part of the reason she was crowned Miss America in 1969, the first winner from Illinois in 42 years.
“She was instrumental,” said Nash, a top athlete who thrilled the audience with an energetic trampoline-jumping routine in the talent portion of the pageant.
“I was this tomboy from Belvidere,” Nash said. But garbed in Miss Hamm’s evening gowns, “She made me look like a lady.”
Miss Hamm, a fashion designer who sewed clothes for her seven brothers and sisters during World War II in the German-occupied Alsace-Lorraine region of France, died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease Dec. 26 at ManorCare Health Services in Northbrook. She was 84.
After immigrating to America in the 1950s, she opened her own special-occasion dress business. It’s now known as Alyce Paris, at 7901 Caldwell Ave., Morton Grove. “She really knew how to suit a woman’s body,” said her niece, company COO Claudine Hamm. “She excelled at hiding things a woman didn’t want to show.”
With empire waists, Grecian folds and elaborate hand-beading, her gowns are timeless and elegant. Her first big pageant winner was Kansan Debra Dene Barnes, who became Miss America 1968. She also dressed Miss USA 1973, Amanda Jones, of Evanston, and Miss USA 1974, Karen Morrison, of St. Charles. Miss Hamm’s gowns became ubiquitous at contests including Miss France and Miss Black Illinois USA. At times, every major pageant seemed to have at least five contenders wearing her designs, said her brother, company CEO Jean-Paul Hamm.
Recently, singer Carrie Underwood and entertainers Britney Spears and Hilary Duff appeared on magazine covers in Alyce Paris gowns. The company makes 500 different styles each year, for promgoers, and mothers-of-the-bride, with prices ranging from $149 to $900. They are produced in China.
“It takes two weeks to hand-bead a dress if it’s a fully beaded dress — a single person working on it two weeks,” said her niece. They are offered at specialty boutiques and some are sold under the Nordstrom label.
One of her dresses, an organza bustle-backed creation, was a huge 1975 seller. “That was the one that put her on the map,” said another niece, company technical designer Nathalie Lambert. “It was just a great dress. It sold really well.”
Miss Hamm created outfits for two Chicago first ladies, Eleanor Daley and Heather Bilandic, and Illinois first lady Brenda Edgar, relatives said. She dressed Canada’s ice princess, 1948 Olympic skating gold medalist Barbara Ann Scott, who was a torch bearer at the Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988.
Miss Hamm grew up in Saessolsheim, France, a small farming village near Strasbourg.
During World War II, German occupiers installed their own teachers. “You had no choice — the primary school was all [in] German,” her brother said. Her parents, Joseph and Augustine, owned a restaurant, and her father also worked as a cobbler. “One time, the Germans came to collect shoes for the army,” he said.
Her mother had lived in America in the 1920s, working for a time as a governess on Lake Shore Drive. When U.S. troops were in town after the German surrender, an American soldier visited the family restaurant, seeking eggs. Because he couldn’t speak French, he clucked and flapped his wings to mimic a chicken. In perfect English,
Miss Hamm’s mother asked him, “Do you want eggs?’”
She learned to sew from nuns in Sauverne, France, and at fashion school in Paris. After moving to Chicago, where she had relatives, she landed a job at Carol Gowns and then with another dressmaker, Blum & Leibach. Eventually, she bought Blum & Leibach and renamed it.
In the 1970s, she was thrilled when Chicago Daily News fashion writer Peg Zwecker took note of her work. Miss Hamm was named “Designer of the Year” in 1994 by Chicago’s Apparel Industry Foundation.
The Lincolnwood resident exuded chic. “She loved to wear palazzo pants and nice jackets, beaded jackets, cashmere sweaters; very classic,” Lambert said. Miss Hamm wore her hair in a chignon. “She owned the same pantsuit in every color. She had them made in Hong Kong.” She loved the cheer of yellow and included a yellow gown in every one of her collections.
Miss Hamm retired in 2002. She also is survived by her sister, Cecile; a brother, Joseph, and many nieces and nephews. Services have been held.