Currently Reading: Bonnie Cashin: Chic Is Where You Find It.

This newly released book on the life and work of designer Bonnie Cashin was a very long time in coming.  Writer Stephanie Lake got to know Cashin in the late 1990s while doing research in Cashin’s archive.  Their friendship led to discussions about a book, but Cashin died in 2000 before it could be written.  Lake found herself in the possession of the archive and of many of Cashin’s personal effects.  The professional archive went to to the UCLA Library, and Lake spent years cataloging it.

I can’t imaging a person more qualified to write this book than Lake.  She spent many days over the course of three years talking with Cashin.  She has thoroughly studied the archive and knows the content.  At times it feels like the writing is that of a daughter.

Cashin grew up drawing and sewing.  The beach costume on the left was drawn by her when she was about eighteen, and that’s her on the right at about the same age.  Her mother, Eunice, was a very accomplished dressmaker, and so Bonnie was around sewing and creating throughout her childhood.   Eunice worked with Bonnie as a sample maker until her death in the 1960s.

Over the years, Bonnie Cashin designed clothes and accessories for more than forty different companies.  She employed a novel business model in which she designed the clothes she wanted, and then found companies that would make them to her specifications (and put her name on the label, of course.)  That way she was in control of the items that had her name on them.  The only person who ever designed under a Bonnie Cashin label was Bonnie Cashin.

Contrast her model with the one that prevails today – that of a designer licensing her name to a company that uses a team of designers to create the designs.

One of Bonnie Cashin’s biggest ideas was that of layering.  She explained this philosophy toward dressing in a 1952 illustration, shown above.  We might think today that is just how we all get dressed, but that was not the case in 1952.

One thing that comes across clearly in this book is Cashin’s love of and use of color.  The above caption reads, “I’m a colorist. Matching everything is dull, dull, dull.” Her interesting color combinations were anything but dull.

You can also see in the two examples above how Cashin did not rely on the usual buttons and zippers.  Bits of metal were more her style.

One of the strengths of this book is the use of odds and ends of archival material.  There are color charts and advertising ephemera, sketches and journal entries, closeup looks at fabrics and personal photographs.  And, of course, there are lots of photos of stunning clothing.

In the mid 1960s Cashin designed a line of cashmere sweaters that were made for her by Ballantyne of Scotland.  Again, you can see how her sense of color created a look that was distinctly Cashin.

The items above are from a line Cashin started in the 1970s, The Knittery.  She wanted to do a more handmade, craft-based line of sweaters.  Her idea was to use hand knitters who were marginalized by society – the poor elderly, the imprisoned, the handicapped.

This is the type of dress that makes me think I could live in a Bonnie Cashin wardrobe.  Note that the neckline and the sleeve cuffs are edged in leather, and the belt is leather as well.

One of the best advertisements for her clothes was Cashin herself.  That’s her on the left, late 1960s.

I also enjoyed seeing so many photos of Cashin’s workspace and home.  The ones above show her country house, where she did a lot of her designing in the 1950s and 60s.  The colored blocks on the wall contain favorite poems and quotes which she hand inscribed.

There is a lot of information contained in this book, but it is not a scholarly study of Cashin.  The only source sited is the UCLA archive, which, along with her personal conversations with Cashin, were really all that were needed to properly tell the story.  For most readers, this is enough, but I can’t help but think that detailed notations of items used from the archive might really help consequent researchers.

Also, there is no index.  To me, this is the biggest shortcoming of the book.  Writers and publishers, non-fiction books need to be indexed.

If you are a fan of Bonnie Cashin’s work, this book will delight you.  And if you are not familiar with her, the book is sure to make you a fan as well.

12 Comments

Filed under Currently Reading, Designers

12 responses to “Currently Reading: Bonnie Cashin: Chic Is Where You Find It.

  1. WOW! Cashin is such a legend! She was as much of a pioneer as Claire Mc Cardell ! The era in which they designed gave birth to visionary creative talent ! The blk./white houndstooth tunic over the straight leather skirt -my mom owned/wore I gave to my friend-she wears it today! Must read this! THANK You Lizzie for this ! Now I have to find the book!

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  2. At the vintage shop where I work we have a few Cashin items…they are great fun to examine inside and out. Will look out for the book!

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  3. Thanks for this great review, Lizzie. Now I need to read it!

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  4. Thanks for this post, Lizzie. This looks like a must-read.

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  5. Such a generous review, Lizzie! I would have been harsher about the lack of footnotes and an index, but I think you are right that this is an amazing resource. And so beautiful. I went through it again a few days ago and was once again thrilled by the colors and textures.

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    • The historian in me was really disturbed by these omissions; the vintage fashion lover, not so much so. But even a collector or vintage clothing seller would benefit greatly from an index.

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      • As a scholar it was difficult for me, too, but i soon learned that there is a strict page count, cut size, and price package for every book. If I had included the footnotes and index, it would mean losing an entire section of the book. I decided it was more important to tell BC’s story in its entirety and share as much as possible of her extraordinarily rich archive.

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  6. Ruth

    When I went to Amazon to look this up the other thing that came up with it was and advertisement for an old ad that mentions the model wearing something by Bonnie Cashin–

    https://www.amazon.com/Illustration-Overblouse-Original-Saturday-Magazine/dp/B00CRQXV7E/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1468282235&sr=8-1-fkmr0&keywords=Bonnie+Cashin%3A+Chic+Is+Where+You+Find+It.

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