Seventh Avenue Special! First Fashion Week: New York Proves You Don’t Need Fabric to Put on a Good Show

To commemorate Fashion Week, this week we are rerunning certain New York–centric Stories Behind the Styles as part of our Seventh Avenue Special! series. This story—the history of New York’s first fashion week—was originally posted on July 20, 2010.
World War II was not a good time to be a Parisian. The people running the show were, like, total Nazis. Your economy had screeched to a halt, your charcuterie plate was bare, your venerated couture industry was left in the lurch and even if you did have anything to wear, you wouldn’t have anywhere decent to wear it because you couldn’t leave your house after dark. And on top of that, America had swept in at this lowly moment to steal your status as the arbiter of all things fashion. Talk about insult to injury. All is fair in fashion and war, though (even among allies, apparently), and in its campaign to cement its status as the new fashion center of the universe, New York City launched its first ever fashion week on July 20, 1943.

It wasn’t called Fashion Week at first. It began as “Press Week,” and was the brain child of genius fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert, who was working for the New York Dress Institute (and would later go on to establish the Coty Awards and what is now Vanity Fair’s Best Dressed list, among other things). The Institute invited 150 fashion reporters from around the country to New York for a week’s worth of fashion events to show off the city’s royal punking of Paris. Fifty-six of them showed up.

Vogue editor-in-chief Edna Woolman Chase received the ladies of the press at a cocktail party at the Cosmopolitan Club, giving the out-of-state guests a chance to rub elbows with the New York journalists. They were then swept to and fro from one show to the next to take in the latest fashions that the city’s clothing manufacturers and designers, in a groundswell of wartime patriotic fervor, felt it was their duty to produce. “One-hundred ways to preserve fabric” was the wartime theme of the week’s closing show and luncheon on the rooftop of the Hotel Pierre. Among the designs presented from 50 different houses, the “short dinner dress was prominently featured” and “the two-piece that does double duty as suit and dress was stressed throughout,” reported the New York Times. Black, gray and beige were popular colors—not because they were elegant, but because they didn’t use up precious dyes. There wasn’t much designer name-trumpeting going on; there were few if any that anyone would recognize. It had been the American habit to label its garments with the names of manufacturers rather than designers (though with Ms. Lambert’s marketing savvy in the mix, that was all starting to change). The one label that was sewn into every piece of clothing, from juniors’ jumpers to sequined evening gowns, was the one that said “New York Creation.”

“Along with the vast war contributions that are being made, New York seeks to keep alive the beautiful and splendid things of life,” Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia said before the show. “We have kept up with our cultural activities, with education and all that goes to make life better and happier.” Despite the challenges that material shortages posed, the mayor pledged that the city would remain on top of the fashion industry with a focus on the affordable.

Fashion Week was a semi-annual event, even in its infancy. The second one was held just six months later in January of 1944, and it proved to be a sort of “cultural exchange” with the New York fashion editors learning a few things from their small-town sisters about the mindset of the rest of the country. The women’s editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer said that “at least 90 percent” of the women working for the war effort were eager to get out of the workforce and back into the home. The fashion editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Dispatch said that as the breadwinners, women were developing tastes for particular things like fur coats and alligator purses. In Los Angeles, wearing trousers in the factory all day was making women crave ultra-feminine dresses to wear at night. And several editors said their readers were no longer interested in just the fashion and advice pages, but obsessed over the political commentaries as well.

Fittingly, the final show of the week was a super cheeky play on the national political party conventions. A nominating session of the “CHIC” (Congress honoring inexpensive clothes) party was called to order, resulting in the election of a tall, blond candidate named “Miss America Smith.” Glittering evening dresses promised “social security” for women of all ages. The “liberty, equality and maternity” group of designs showed that the expectant mother can still be stylish (and that the designers didn’t have any qualms about stealing national mottos from the French, either).

By now, the industry had its sights firmly set on life on the flip side of the war. Calling the third Press Week the “People’s Fashion Show,” the New York Dress Institute, according to the NYT, “optimistically declared the show will lay the groundwork of a post-war plan whereby New York’s $1,000,000,000 dress industry expects to double its volume in the domestic and foreign markets within a few years.” Also by this time, the fashion press was completely addicted. “I couldn’t get along without these trips,” said Anne Lawson, fashion editor of Columbus’ Ohio State Journal. “They give us a chance to see what’s really going on.”

What New York’s fashion makers didn’t see coming in the post-war period was Christian Dior, the Frenchman whose “New Look” took the Yanks by storm and helped Paris reclaim a bit of its old thunder. Paris would, of course, start its own modern fashion week tradition in 1973, which stands as one of the “big four” today along with Milan and London. But out of the more than 100 fashion weeks that take place all over the world today, from Sarajevo to Sacramento,  New York’s show is still the main event. —Cody Bay

Photo credits: Top: the first fashion week (Conde Nast Media Group); Middle: Eleanor Lambert (AP Photo); Bottom: a 1943 Nettie Rosenstein New York Creation design (New York Times)

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