Martha Sleeper – Silent Film Actress to Fashion Designer

Posted by Bella Coeur on

Maybe I said this before when I was researching a Nelly Don dress, one of the most enjoyable parts of selling vintage clothing – for me – is research and learning.  It seems selfish not to pass along information when I find it. Including a lot of historical detail  in a description can be overwhelming for some, so I’m passing some knowledge along here!

I purchased several pieces of clothing from the estate of a woman whose family owned a high end clothing boutique from about the 1940s through the 1960s or 70s.  Almost every item was either tailor made, designer (remember the Mingolini Guggenheim?), or at least had an interesting clothing label. 

Now that we’re well into summer, I’m desperately trying to pull a few more summer dresses out to get into my shop.  This dress caught my eye because the turquoise and white cotton print looks so cooling.  One look at the label, “Martha Sleeper Creates For You  100% Cotton San Juan, Puerto Rico” and I knew I had some research to do!

It turns out that Martha Sleeper started her career in silent films and then moved on to Broadway in the 1940s.  Then, in 1949 she took a vacation to the Virgin Islands and ended up in Puerto Rico where she loved it so much, she stayed.  While looking for a way to support herself in her new life, she began designing jewelry – a hobby she enjoyed prior to WWII.  Finding that “too tedious”, she started designing clothing and in 1950, opened a shop. She designed the silk screen prints for her fabric and 80% of this printed fabric was processed in Puerto Rico.  By 1955, her island inspired clothing was being exported to other islands and to the US. 

In 1964, Ms. Sleeper opened a shop in Palm Beach, Florida at the urging of her friends and divided her time between Palm Beach and Puerto Rico. 

Martha Sleeper died on March 25, 1983 of a heart attack at age 72 in Beaufort, South Carolina where she lived with her third husband.

So now that I’ve found out just who Martha Sleeper was … can I really sell the dress?  Well it depends.  Does it fit me?!


Originally posted 6/18/2010

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  • I work for Martha in 1964. As a matter of fact those of us wore all of her clothes. As a wedding gift she designed my wedding gown. Plus the formal dress I wore to the Graduation Hop at West Point. Lovely lady! Very talented! I met numerous stars who visited her shop in Old San Juan.

    Joanne on
  • I just bought a Martha Sleeper dress at a flea nmarket in Providence RI. It’s a turquouse cotton sleeveless style with two pockets in the front – identical to the one you show. The print is a leafy blu and green. I paid $15 and love it. Perfect summer dress.

    Mary newton on

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