Currently Reading: Radical by Design

The Life and Style of Elizabeth Hawes: Fashion Designer, Union Organizer, Best-selling Author. By Bettina Berch

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


Filed under Currently Reading, Designers

10 responses to “Currently Reading: Radical by Design

  1. What an interesting post, thank you. I’m off to try and find her book.


  2. I read this a few years ago, and loved it. Elizabeth Hawes was such a fascinating person, not only a remarkable designer, but an incredible free-thinking person. I’d love to know what you think when you’ve finished.


  3. Joan, I finished the book yesterday, and I must say that it just left me feeling sad. As with others whose ideas were before their time, she struggled futilely to make changes that later happened through the relaxing of society. It just left me wishing the Met was not breaking apart that collection of her work.


    • Ah well, I like to think of her as having been an important stepping stone in the things that have come to be. I suppose that’s why it didn’t sadden me. Would things have been the same if she hadn’t been who she was? I don’t think they would.

      I am sorry the collection is being broken up and sold off.


  4. Mei

    I am very frustrated about the Met breaking up her work. I think it is irresponsible of them and fairly depressing. Her friend donated it in good faith, and her donation should be respected.

    Question time! I was looking at this blog post on another site, about beach fashion:

    How did the clothes look so crisp? I know you are a fabric specialist, so you might be able to tell me how the shorts here, for example ( don’t look rumpled. Was it just starch that kept the fabric resistant to wrinkling?


    • Mei, you are not the only one frustrated by the deaccessioning of items from the Brooklyn Museum costume collection. The Met is an art museum, and as such even the costume collection shows human achievement at the highest level of quality. There are some very important pieces in the Hawes grouping, along with original sketches for some of the dresses. I’m pretty sure that these items have made it into the Met’s permanent collection. I do feel like it is a shame that a museum with a different focus – perhaps in her native New Jersey – could not have been given the entire collection. It was a marvelous record of her career.


    • As for your fabric question, yes, they did use starch to help with the wrinkling, but I suspect most of these photos were taken while the outfit (and hair-dos!) were still fresh. Also, some of these things appear to be made from rayon, which did not wrinkle as badly as, say, linen. And cotton duck, which the shorts appear to be, is very resistant to wrinkling.


      • Mei

        Thank you so much! I am a home sewer and am always on the lookout for something that won’t leave me looking accordion-pleated.


  5. Pingback: 1930s fabric eye candy | Curls n Skirls

  6. Pingback: july/august ~ calm before storm | Curls n Skirls

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