Obituary: Cathy Rodgers, former fashion design faculty, 87

Taught fashion design for 47 years

Cathy Rodgers, who taught fashion design for 47 years, works with a student in the Sam Fox School's Bixby Hall in 2004.
Cathy Rodgers (right), who taught fashion design for 47 years, works with a student in the Sam Fox School’s Bixby Hall in 2004.

Cathy Rodgers, a former member of the fashion design faculty at Washington University in St. Louis, died April 6, 2016, at her home in Ladue. She was 87.

Jeans were dungarees, men wore grey flannel suits, and Hubert de Givenchy raised haute couture eyebrows with his iconic “sack” silhouette in 1957, the year Rodgers joined the  faculty.

Over the next five decades, she would teach tailoring and pattern-making to generations of designers, including such fashion luminaries as Carolyne Roehm, Kay Unger, Judd Waddell  and Paul Dillinger.

“Cathy taught you to be precise and systematic in your thinking,” said Robin VerHage, associate professor of fashion design in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, who worked with Rodgers until the latter’s retirement in 2004. “To do good tailoring, you have to take the steps in sequence, constantly correcting anything that’s askew. Otherwise, you’re building on a faulty foundation and everything falls apart.

“That can be a challenge for those who are stronger on the creative or intuitive side,” VerHage said. “But Cathy never lost her cool. She knew how to impart the lesson with grace and fortitude.”

Born in 1928, Rodgers was raised in St. Louis and attended Washington University, commuting by bus from her parents’ home. A member of the Pi Beta Phi sorority, she studied fashion design and counted the archeologist George Mylanos and designer Dorothy O’Brien among her mentors. She graduated in 1950, and two years later married her college sweetheart, James A. Rodgers Jr., who had earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering in 1949.

Rodgers spent several years in the fashion industry before returning to campus as a design instructor. In addition to her tailoring and pattern-making studios, she helped build the program’s library of fashion blocks — i.e. garment templates, many of which are still used by students today — and frequently coordinated the annual Fashion Design Show.

She also helped recruit, and worked closely with, the late designer Jeigh Singleton, who led the fashion design program for 25 years and who remained her dear friend, weekly confidant and “work husband” for the rest of her life.

“Cathy was truly a classic,” says alumna Susan Sanders Block, founder of The Designing Block, who today chairs the annual Fashion Design Show. “She was the epitome of grace and style. She will be missed.”

Rodgers is survived by her son, Doug Rodgers, of St. Louis; and by her daughter Carolyn Rodgers and son-in-law Gordon Weiner of Boston. Another daughter, Judy — co-owner and chef at San Francisco’s renowned Zuni Café — died in 2013 following a battle with cancer. She is also mourned by Judy’s husband, Kirk Russell; by stepdaughters Kate and Olivia; and by beloved nieces and nephews here and around the country.

A memorial service will be held later. Cards for her family and/or remembrance gifts may be sent to the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, c/o Lynn Giardina, Washington University, 1 Brookings Drive, Campus Box 1202, St. Louis, Mo., 63130-4899.

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