If Hattie Carnegie had been a contestant on Project Runway, she never would have made it past the first round. The famed Seventh Avenue dressmaker, who died on this day in 1956, did not know how to sew. A Time magazine tribute noted that, “her needlework was atrocious, and if she ventured to baste a hem it was likely to sag.” But she had an eye for editing and the gene for style, so it’s no surprise she was able to build up an $8 million empire on the “little Carnegie suit.”
Born Henrietta Kanengeiser in 1889, the designer appropriated the famous steelmaker Andrew Carnegie’s name for herself in the hopes of living out her own rags to riches fantasy. Growing up in a poor family of Austrian immigrants, Carnegie starting working at Macy’s department store at age 15. That, as they say, is where it all began. She was no awkward tween wallflower, and the youngster felt confident enough to weigh in on a window display of a black, beaded evening gown, suggesting to the fitter that it needed a white fur collar and cuffs. The dress sold fabulously well with the Carnegie touch. And so, a fashion prodigy was born.
In 1909, Carnegie and a seamstress friend set up shop together as Carnegie—Ladies’ Hatter. Rose made dresses and Hattie made hats to sell in their tiny, second-floor shop, where rich society ladies wended their way up through the scents coming from the Chinese restaurant on the first floor.
Just after World War I, Carnegie bought Rose out and changed her business name to Hattie Carnegie, Inc. In 1919, she made her first visit to Paris, and so began the mutual love affair between Carnegie and the Parisian fashion world. She was the Anna Wintour of her day, a fashion week front-row diva who could sway the season’s styles by a nod or a grimace. Vogue magazine even had a dedicated monthly column of style tips and fashion forecasts, called “Vogue points from Hattie Carnegie.”
She bought up scads of Vionnet, Lanvin, Chanel and Patou, bringing these designers’ clothes back to her boutique in New York, where her customers could either buy an original or a Carnegie interpretation of these original French frocks.
But despite her success in fashion, she eschewed much of the industry’s rites. According to Notable American Women, Carnegie “resented ugly customers, hated fashion lunches, newspaperwomen and fashion experts.” I’m certain were she alive today, she and Karl Lagerfeld would have been in the corner at fashion week, gossiping away. During the Depression, when so many customers were struggling to pay their existing bills, let alone purchase new designer clothes, Carnegie came out with a more moderately priced ready-to-wear line, eventually creating an inexpensive wholesale line, Spectator Sports, so that her clothes could be sold at department stores all over the country.
Carnegie believed that “simple, beautiful clothes … enhance the charm of the woman who wears them. If you have a dress that is too often admired, be suspicious of it.” Her famous “little Carnegie suit” catered to the feminine figure, with nipped-in waists and long, straight skirts, accented with dressmaker details in luxurious fabrics. She was so famous for this silhouette that she was commissioned by the U.S. Army to create a uniform for the Women’s Army Corps, for which she won a Congressional Medal of Freedom. The stylish suit might not be practical in the trenches, but it sure was chicer than army fatigues.
From three blouses and one skirt to an empire of clothes, Carnegie literally lived out her rags to riches fantasy. It’s no surprise that without her keen stylistic vision, the business went under after her death. But she certainly left a legacy, with some of her proteges, such as James Galanos, Pauline Trigère and Normal Norell, going on to make names for themselves in the business. To the end she was true to her motto: “Fads aren’t fashion. There is a difference. Fashion never outdates itself.” —Kristine Lloyd
Credits: Top: Hattie Carnegie (right) working with her chief fitter on a Carnegie suit, photographer unknown. All images found on flickr, from the excellent account of Dovima is Divine II. Second from top, at left: The model on the right is wearing a pinch waist suit by Hattie Carnegie; at right: Two women model winter suits by Hattie Carnegie with Sally Victor hats along the Massachusetts coastline; both images by Genevieve Naylor. Third from top, at left: Lisa Fonssagrives in Hattie Carnegie shot by Irving Penn; at right: a Carnegie modeled in a 1935 Vogue magazine. Fourth from top: Lisa Fonssagrives in Hattie Carnegie shot by Irving Penn; at right: spring suits from 1951, photographer unknown. Bottom: Left: Taupe army coat from the Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project. Officer in the Hattie Carnegie style white dress uniform (1951-1960), found at Army History; standard WAC uniform from Wisconsin Veterans Affairs.