Kathy Montgomery

When you hear “Prescott,” you might think of Whiskey Row, Thumb Butte or the “World’s Oldest Rodeo.” Fashion probably doesn’t spring to mind. But there was a time when fashion was big business in the mile-high city. By the time it closed, Thunderbird Fashions was one of Prescott’s largest employers, and its Southwest-inspired clothing carried the city’s name from coast to coast.

Founder Jack Mims was among the influx of U.S. Army veterans who moved to Arizona after World War II. The Texas ad man settled in Prescott and bought a six-employee business that manufactured men’s pants. Shifting production to Western wear, he operated the company’s original label, Prescott Sportswear, from Montezuma Street just off Courthouse Square. That label included Lil’ Dudette shorts designed by Reg Manning, the creator of the cartoon cowgirl. 

In 1951, Mims started Thunderbird Fashions in a building across the alley, with partner Bill Bartmess at the helm. The company purchased a shirt factory in Nebraska in 1952 and rechristened it Thunderbird Shirt Sales, and by 1956, the two Thunderbird facilities employed about 150 people.

“Jack … was a dynamo,” a brief company history in Thunderbird’s 1960 catalog noted. “He was probably the greatest salesman the Western clothing field ever saw. Smart as a whip and sincere and honest as they come. … When Jack died, the company died a little, too.”

By then, Ben Test, Bill Lunsford and Gerald Breed had taken over management. A former steel salesman from Cincinnati, Test had moved to Prescott in 1950 and bought into Thunderbird. His first job was cutting jackets, but he soon was selling the line to customers that included Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm in California, along with Babbitt’s and Phelps Dodge stores in Arizona. 

Thunderbird was best known for its “fiesta dresses,” which were printed with bright, Southwest-themed designs and featured names such as Desert Princess, Miss Silver City and Ladies Rancher. It also produced “princess jackets” and “frontier pants.” 

Promising to “completely redesign the Western fashion line every year,” the company’s 1961 catalog featured that year’s Miss Arizona, Susan Webb, modeling wash-and-wear bell bottoms called the Barrel Racer, “for fast-riding gals who love the whip of the wind in their faces.” Other offerings included the Amarillo Vixen, which “makes her look and feel like a rodeo queen” and offered a matching blouse “leaping with more Western radiance than a test bomb in New Mexico.”

“Competitors think we’re nuts,” that year’s catalog said. “They just can’t see why we go to the trouble and expense of putting master tailoring and premium materials into our products.” And maybe their competitors had a point: The next year, the company filed for bankruptcy and closed, with Test blaming high rents and unions. With that, Prescott’s brief foray into fashion faded into memory.