The name Sophie Gimbel should be familiar to anyone in the New School University community as it is Gimbel, together with her husband, Adam Gimbel, former president of Saks Fifth Avenue, whose names adorn the University’s Design Library. To the general public though, Gimbel’s name is not so recognizable, and her contributions to American fashion, clearly understood during the mid 20thcentury, have been obscured over time. Sophie Gimbel was the head custom designer at Saks Fifth Avenue from the 1930’s through the 1960’s. Acting as designer, buyer, salesperson and, often while out on the town in an original creation, her own best model, Gimbel was the epitome of the successful female fashion executive.
This formal evening gown from Gimbel’s Fall / Winter 1957-58 collection consists of an under layer of silk peu de soire in solid blue with a full skirt and a sweetheart neckline. The bodice is structured with flexible aluminum boning running vertically down the wearer’s torso. Additionally a corselet and full length petticoat would be worn underneath the garment in order to achieve the desired silhouette. The highly embellished overdress is of machine made lace that was re-embroidered with tiny glass beads and cup sequins and finished with a picot edge. All of this work would have been done by hand by skilled needlewomen in the Salon Moderne workroom.
The silhouette of the dress features the Americanized version of Dior’s New Look that Gimbel and the Salon Modern promoted during the later part of the 1940’s and 1950’s. There are no sharp angles or sloped shoulders evident in this design, though the nipped-in waist and full skirt do serve to romanticize the garment and keep it current with the prevailing taste of upper class women of a certain ilk who were Gimbel’s core clientele. No sack dress here, as Gimbel was adamantly against them and any other garments that did not serve to show off a woman’s curves to her best advantage.
Though the underlayer of the dress has a revealing sweetheart neckline, the lace overlay features a demure scoop neckline that allows the showing of a bit of cleavage through a camouflage of lace while still remaining decidedly ladylike. The duality of sexy, ladylike dressing is a trademark of Gimbel’s creations.
Each month this “missive du mode” column will present a garment or ensemble from the Parsons Fashion Collection. The Collection, whose strength is in mid 20th century American fashion design, was greatly enhanced by a donation from the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2005. Many prominent 20thC designers, including Saint Laurent, Givenchy, Ungaro, Valentino and McCardell are represented. It is so exciting to see the collection come into it’s own this year. I have been working with the Parsons Fashion Collection since 2005, when I started teaching History, Culture and Society in the School of Fashion. Before coming to Parsons I was the Research Associate in Charge of the Collections at the Costume Institute and also worked at Calvin Klein as their Archive Manager.
If you are interested in learning more about Sophie Gimbel keep an eye out for the online exhibition, Sophie of Saks: Sophie Gimbel and the Salon Moderne, debuting Fall 2010.