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.