Fashion Was Anything But Spinach To American Fashion Designer Elizabeth Hawes
Channeling Elizabeth Hawes
Elizabeth Hawes Is More Than Just Spinach
To me American fashion designer/writer Elizabeth Hawes (1903-1971) was more than a great stylist she was also one of my mentors. It's not important that I never met her because her life still moved me regardless. I had just started working at the Santa Monica Public Library in 1999 when I found "Radical By Design: The Life and Style of Elizabeth Hawes" by Bettina Berch on a shelf one day. My life was very stressful and overwhelming and this book became a God send.
I was trying to compile my writing portfolio, earn my B.A. in "Fashion Merchandising" from CSULA and my "Print and Broadcast Journalism Certificate" from UCLA Extension. I gave myself five years to do it, so from 1999 to when I was forced to quit because of a homeless stalker in 2004, I struggled to achieve my goals. Unfortunately the solace I sought there didn't exist. Still, amongst that snake pit where computer porn and sexual harassment overruled intellectualism I experienced peace of mind within the pages of Berch's book.
One of the coolest things I read about Hawes was she thought style was more important than fashion because style was authentic. A native of Ridgewood, New Jersey she was raised by a mother, an educator and fan of Maria Montessori. By "educating her four children in a realistic and creative environment", Hawes' mother taught them how to craft at an early age. Graduating from "raffia baskets" and "beadwork" to apparel construction Hawes was making her own clothes by the age of 10. The solid middle-class work ethics her mother and father, an Assistant Manager at South Pacific, instilled in her motivated her to begin her professional career at 12. Proficient enough, as a dressmaker, Hawes created outfits for other children too and a dress shop in Hartford, Pennsylvania called, "The Greenaway Shop".
Intelligent and ambitious, when it came time to attend college, she decided on her mother and older sister's alma mater-Vassar. Academically she might've been devoted to Economics, but away from her studies, she was still crazy about clothes. Her passion led her, in 1923, to "Parsons School of Fine and Applied Arts". Throughout the six week semester she realized it was too art based for her and left the program. Later, in 1924, she started working as an intern for "Bergdorf Goodman". The constant exposure to the beautiful French imports that came into the store convinced her that she needed to actually travel to France to really learn about fashion. It was common for well-dressed women then to look to Paris for direction, and Hawes was no different, until she went there in 1925.
Disappointed by her fashion jobs at a high toned copy house and as a sketcher for an East Coast manufacturer the only position she seemed to enjoy, in Paris, was as an overseas fashion correspondent. For "Cosmos Syndicate", her work was simultanteously carried in the "New York Post", the "Baltimore Sun" and other U.S. publications. That column eventually led to one for the "New Yorker" under the alias "Parasite".
Following her three year stint in France she decided she was ready to become a full-time designer. She made an important contact with Main Bocher, "Vogue" magazine's Parisian editor in 1928, who helped her launch her design career. Initally she told him about her dream when he offered her a position with "Vogue". He subsequently put in a good word for her with Madame Nicole Groult. Since Groult was the sister of the famous French couturier Paul Poiret this was a great opportunity for Hawes. While working there she perfected Madeleine Vionnet's method for draping. Amos Parrish, a prominent supporter, stopped by to see her in Paris after reading about her in the "New Yorker" and convinced her to travel back home to the U.S. to design.
When she returned to New York she discovered there was a lack of American couturiers and women here were still being heavily influenced by France. Brimming with three years of experience and revolutionary ideas she started her own company, "Hawes-Harden" with a friend's cousin, Rosemary Harden. Prior to coming home Hawes was already formulating ideas and concepts that would set her apart as a designer. She loved experimentation and avant-garde expression.
"Hawes-Harden's" first fashion show demonstrated her fresh approach. Titled "1929 perhaps 1930 surely" instead of showing the trendy flapper sheaths so popular at the time she showed designs with "high waists, that hugged the bodice, and reached all the way to the floor, with a short decorative train in the back." The models didn't wear traditional undergarments either because Hawes preferred to design for the real body.
Her gift for words showed up in many ways whenever she presented her collections too. By naming her designs with funny tags, such as "Alimony" dress and "Misadventure" cape she insured they stayed in the customer's minds, and set her apart from the designers who gave their clothes numbers. So her were her customers? They were usually smart, wealthy, eccentric, creative women who wanted timeless styles that allowed them toi project their own individuality. Hawes attracted this type of client by remembering that presentation had to bring a positive response from an audience. Combining theater with psychology she realized the women who wore her clothes were like performers in their own productions. She payed attention to their color choices, display options and how people reacted to their overall effect.
Harden left "Hawes-Harden" in 1930 and sold her half to Hawes who then went on alone. The 1930s was a great decade for Hawes because she was the first designer from a "non-French" house that showed in Paris in 1931 and in 1932 she was represented in a show for American fashion designers at "Lord and Taylor's" with Annette Simpson and Edith Reuss. In 1931 she created "The Guardsman" glove which would be photographed in 1935 for a "Lucky Strikes" advertisement. Then in 1938 she wrote her autobiography/expose "Fashion Is Spinach".
Elizabeth Hawes might not be as well-known as Coco Chanel or Elsa Schiaparelli but if it weren't for her there wouldn't be an Erin Featherston, Trina Turk or Tory Burch. She helped pave the way for American fashion designers and the modern woman, who's still the muse for great style.
Where To Find Out More About Elizaeth Hawes:
1) If you want to see some of her designs log onto the "Brooklyn Museum of Art's" website at www.brooklynmuseumofart.com. They have a large selection of her sketches in their Libraries and Archives Fashion and Costume Sketch Collection, including "The Conquest of Mexico Dress" from 1937 and "Tarts, fall/winter" from 1937. They aslo have photographs of some of her actual clothing from their "American High Style: Fashioning A National Collection" exhibit ( 5/7-8/1/10) on their website.
2) Through the Los Angeles Public Library you can also check out three of Hawes' books, "It's Still Spinach", "But Say It Politely", and Hurry Up Please It's Time". You can look them up on www.lapl.org.
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Brooklyn Museum of Art
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