Fashion History, Inspiration

“Fashion, my girl– he decided.”

Wedding Ensemble, 1934

The fashion world is busy fawning over the royal wedding dress, and eagerly awaiting the opening of the Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. McQueen was a tremendous talent who designed fantastical, exciting, gorgeously innovative clothes, showcased in wildly theatrical settings and forms. However, extravagance and imagination does not necessarily translate to pragmatic dressing. With the spotlight on this event at the Costume Institute, we are delving into their archives to dig out an often-overlooked American designer from the 1930s: Elizabeth Hawes.

Evening Dress, 1940

Hawes designed clothing at her own shop in New York on West 56th Street from 1928 to 1940, when she went to work at an aviation factory during World War II. After the war, she designed inconsistently and concentrated on writing, for which she had developed a taste in her seminal memoir/ critique of the fashion industry Fashion is Spinach (1938). In this book, Hawes explores the difference between style and fashion, concluding that fashion is a corruptive, potentially evil force which dictates to women what they should wear for purely commercial goals. Style is a personal expression of taste and imagination.

Elizabeth Hawes was anti-fashion establishment and iconoclastic, not unlike Alexander McQueen. She defied the mainstream fashion industry and remained true to her own values, not allowing herself to be ruled by convention or restrictions. As her biographer Bettina Berch noted, “Elizabeth Hawes left us some very useful ideas—ideas about the links between art and politics, sex and fear, money and beauty.” The designs of her clothing are relevant even today, because they considered the needs of modern woman, who should take her place in society as an ambitious, creative, intellectual force, without sacrificing a love of beauty, whimsy, or charm.

-EM

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