To commemorate Fashion Week, On This Day In Fashion is rerunning New York–centric Stories Behind the Styles as part of our Seventh Avenue Special! series. This story—about the life and legend of New York designer Elizabeth Hawes—was originally posted on September 6, 2010.
“I don’t know when the word fashion came into being, but it was an evil day.” How is that for a summation of the clothing industry, particularly given that the words came from an American fashion designer working at the top of her game? Elizabeth Hawes, who died on this day in 1971, wrote the line, and plunked it just a few paragraphs into Chapter 1 of Fashion Is Spinach, her bestselling book published in 1938. Don’t assume she minced words from there on; the full 337 pages are an ongoing smack-down of fashion, fashion designers and, mostly, the fashion industry Hawes blamed for creating a planet of fashion victims. “Fashion is a parasite on style.” “Fashion is that horrid little man with an evil eye.” “Fashion gets up those perfectly ghastly ideas, such as accessories should match…” And so on and so on (this is all still from the first chapter), until briskly closing the book with six finite capital letters in bold print: I SAY TO HELL WITH IT.
In the parlance of the era in which she lived, Hawes was one feisty broad.
Hawes herself would admit she was feisty (I don’t think she’d mind the “broad” part either); her rebellious, plucky spirit was the spark that fired her many interests and careers, from fashion design to manufacturing to writing nine books and countless articles to fighting for basic human rights. In the fashion world, she was an unstoppable force in America during the pre–World War II years, opening a salon at 8 West 56th Street in New York, a fourth-floor walk-up that the ladies who lunched gamely walked up in order to get fitted for a Hawes original and also to hobnob with the artists and celebrities—Alexander Calder, Lynn Fontaine and Katherine Hepburn among them—who gathered there for cocktails and chatter.
Katherine Hepburn, or at least the woman our brains conjure when we think of Hepburn, is actually a good example of the Hawes woman: “independent, strong-willed, intelligent and slightly Wasp,” as author Bettina Berch put it in her biography, Radical by Design: The Life and Style of Elizabeth Hawes. Hawes was born and raised in a progressive, Montessori-influenced home in New Jersey where she was a child prodigy of sorts, designing and creating clothes for grown women at a young age. At Vassar College, she built an army of influential, wealthy contacts, one of whom connected her with friends in Paris, the only place, Hawes knew, that could teach her everything she needed to know about superior dressmaking. She lived there from 1925 to 1928, not working for a great couturier as she had dreamed, but as a fashion copyist, someone who literally stole the designs of leading couturiers. “The desire [to work] was so great I did not for one moment consider the ethics of the matter,” is how Hawes put it later, and she set to work attending fashion shows disguised as a wealthy American shopper before rushing around the corner with her sketch pad and scribbling down illustrations and notes of the latest Chanel, Molyneux and Lanvin designs. On a few occasions she even bribed workers at the shipyards and “borrowed” bundles of couture for her boss to inspect for a few hours, and then taxied the designs back to the docks in the nick of time for them to set sail to New York. She became the ultimate Paris fashion insider, studying the talents of the world’s greatest couturiers while learning the tricks of the most cutthroat members of the industry. All the while she was making extra bucks as a fashion journalist for American magazines, a task she found superficial and insincere. When she returned to New York she was world-weary and jaded, and determined to bring respectability and honesty to a rising new business: the American fashion industry.
Long story short, Hawes didn’t revolutionize the fashion industry, though she gave it the old Vassar try, and not for nothing: Today her perfectly fitted, smart and practical designs are held in private and museum collections, and nothing whips up a frenzy among dedicated fashion bloggers like news of a Hawes design selling on eBay. But Hawes herself became bored with couture, and shut down her business when World War II broke to focus on war efforts and the burgeoning ready-to-wear industry. Once in the factories, she was appalled at the prejudice toward minorities and women, and their rights became her calling. She continued to write the words women wanted to read, namely, that the fashion industry was a sham and that they should wear what fits and looks good and lasts, rather than just “a red lobster painted onto any old dress.” She even confronted men and teenagers, daring them to break out of the stifling, generic molds their wives and mothers created for them, and to ditch their hats and wear more color and short pants. Hawes, long before the Gap and J. Crew, basically invented the idea of casual Friday.
In 1967, Hawes—at this point blacklisted by the FBI for her “Communist” work with American unions—was honored with a retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum. At the gala opening she presented a fashion show, one that showed skirts for men. Even with her final collection, Hawes managed to create a stir. —Ali Basye
Anyone interested in learning more about Elizabeth Hawes, should first and foremost get their hands on a copy of one of her nine out-of-print books. Fashion Is Spinach is the most popular and recommended, although many fans lay all chips on Why Is a Dress? If the second-hand book route doesn’t pan out, read Radical by Design: The Life and Styles of Elizabeth Hawes by Bettina Berch. The latter is also out of print but easier to find online and in libraries than Hawes’ books, and is excellent.
Photos: Top: Portrait of Hawes by Mary Morris Lawrence, c. 1936; top collage: drawings for the 1937 “Alimony Dress” and the real thing, cut on the bias in a rainbow of silk shantung; bottom collage: drawing for Hawes flag dress, a Hawes hat and dress on the cover of Ladies Home Journal and a Life magazine photo of Hawes in her salon.