By Ann Frank
Let’s Bring Back…America’s Once-Great Yet Forgotten Fashion Designers
Soho House, New York and The Huffington Post recently hosted a ‘forgotten fashion’ cocktail party celebrating the release of Lesley M. M. Blume’s new book, Let’s Bring Back: An Encyclopedia of Forgotten-Yet-Delightful, Chic, Useful, Curious, and Otherwise Commendable Things from Times Gone By. Ms. Blume’s column for The Huffington Post, Let’s Bring Back, was inspired by Diana Vreeland’s Why Don’t You…, offering colorful and often off handed suggestions by the infamous and flamboyant fashion editor who worked for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. Mrs. Vreeland was a great supporter of new talent during the twentieth century influencing the careers of the photographer Richard Avedon and the designer Giorgio di Sant’Angelo among others.
In support of Ms. Blume’s latest release that offers a whimsical and sophisticated taste of forgotten novelties, this fashion history professor led a stroll through the twentieth century with a fashionable crowd of collectors, writers, fashion historians, and cultural observers. Key influences such as film, music, and the great Parisian couturiers of the mid-twentieth century served as a backdrop for the cultural history of the birth of American fashion.
One of the evening’s highlights was a selection of garments on display courtesy of The Parsons Fashion Archive and New York Vintage. The Parsons Fashion Archive boasts a substantial collection of American and European garments dating back to the nineteenth century and serves as a study collection for students.
The history of American fashion begins with Eleanor Lambert, a fashion publicist, who started the Coty Awards in 1942 which were presented to American designers in an effort to promote American fashion design during World War II, a time when many couture houses in Paris were forced to close due to the Nazi occupation. America relied on this French industry and filled the gap by producing ready-to-wear clothing that could easily be mass-produced. Claire McCardell (“The American Look”), Norman Norell (the first Coty Award ‘Winnie’ in 1943), Charles James (a master of construction whose gowns could ‘stand up on their own’), Rudi Gernreich (a pioneer of ‘Youthquake’ in the 1960s), and Giorgio di Sant’Angelo (who infused exoticism into the late ‘60s and ‘70s hippie culture) are a few of America’s once great yet forgotten fashion designers.
Prior to World War II, the center of fashion was Paris with the great couturiers such as Madeleine Vionnet, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Coco Chanel. Throughout the twentieth century there was a constant exchange of ideas between America and France. For example, Christian Dior’s New Look (1947), whose silhouette with a narrow waist and padded hips (which can be traced back to the 18th century), was copied by American designers and American jazz music by the composer George Gershwin delighted audiences in MGM movies such as “An American in Paris” (1951) which showcased the fascination with Paris by Americans and vice versa.
The Salon Moderne of Saks Fifth Avenue, headed by Sophie Gimbel, was influential in the dissemination of French taste during the mid-twentieth century in America. In 1929, she was hired by Adam Gimbel (grandson of Gimbels department store founder whom she later married) as a buyer for Saks; a savvy stylist, Gimbel created her own designs incorporating high fashion Parisian influences for a sophisticated and discerning clientele.
Once again we are poised to enter a very exciting time in American Fashion particularly with the CFDA incubator project, which supports emerging American fashion designers by providing a creative environment for new talent.
Furthermore, America’s First Lady, Michelle Obama, recently chose a vintage Norman Norell cocktail dress from the 1950s for the TNT Christmas in Washington broadcast. Her support of emerging American designers has made headlines; her choice of a Norman Norell dress for this event makes a sophisticated and historic statement about the resurgence of the American fashion industry.
So let’s bring back American fashion and some of the designers that established the concept of American fashion design. A close look reveals that much of the influence seen in fashion today throughout the world can be attributed to these notable greats.
Arnold, Rebecca. The American Look: Fashion, Sportswear and the Image of Women in 1930s and 1940s New York. London & New York: I.B Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2009.
Welters, Linda and Patricia A. Cunningham. Twentieth-Century American Fashion. Oxford & New York: Berg, 2005.