I recently ran across this biography of designer Elizabeth Hawes. Many of us know Hawes because of her fashion industry expose of 1940, Fashion is Spinach. In it she gives a great description of how copiers were able to steal the latest French fashions and have their knock-offs hit the market almost before the real thing. In the past few weeks I’ve thought a lot about Hawes, mainly because of the drastic changes in the availability of images from the latest fashion shows. There are no more futile attempts to keep the new collections a secret. The shows are tweeted in real time, and some design houses even live-streamed their entire show.
Compare this to just 10 years ago, when the latest collections were available on just a few websites, and you had to pay a fee to see the current images! And in the 1950s several couturiers actually banned journalists from their shows because of the leaking of the new designs.
But back to Hawes. She began her career as a copier in the 1920s in Paris, but in 1928 she had had enough of it and she returned to New York to start her own made-to-order clothing business. She and a friend opened a small salon on West Fifty-sixth Street where they partied and sold enough frocks to make a small living. Her friend sold her share to Hawes in 1930, and Hawes, Inc was born. For the next ten years Hawes’ firm made exclusive clothes for her clients. She also dabbled in mass-merchandising, but the Hawes label remained a small enterprise.
In 1940 Hawes abruptly closed her salon and went into union organizing. By the time she was finished with it she had an FBI file and was eventually labeled a communist. She did more designing for private clients from time to time, but for the most part, she wrote controversial books and articles about fashion and about unions. She was a heavy drinker, and died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1971.
Today, Hawes designs are hard to come by, mainly because they were never produced in large quantities. For years the place to go to see Hawes’ work was the Brooklyn Museum, who had a collection of over 100 Hawes garments, most donated by Hawes’ friend and customer, Elinore Gimbel. Now that the Brooklyn Museum’s costume collection has gone to the Met, many of the Hawes garments have been sold, and 31 more will be for sale this March. Kind of a shame, actually.
Fashion Is Spinach – a must read for lovers of fashion history