Born: Ridgewood, New Jersey, 16 December 1903. Education: Studied at Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York, 1921-25. Family: Married Ralph Jester in 1930 (divorced, 1934); married Joseph Losey in 1937 (divorced, 1944), son: Gavrik Losey. Career: Worked in Paris as fashion copyist, stylist, journalist, then designed for Nicole Groult, 1925-28; designer and partner, Hawes-Harden, New York, 1928-30; designer, Hawes, Inc., New York, 1930-40; designer, Elizabeth Hawes, Inc., New York, 1948-49; occasional freelance designer, New York and California, 1950-68. Additionally an author, union organizer, and political activist. Exhibitions: Two Modern Artists of Dress: Elizabeth Hawes and Rudi Gernreich, Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, 1967; Brooklyn Museum (retrospective), 1985. Died: 6 September 1971, in New York.
Fashion is Spinach, New York, 1938.
Men Can Take It, New York, 1939.
Why is a Dress?, New York, 1942.
Good Grooming, Boston, 1942.
Why Women Cry, or Wenches with Wrenches, New York, 1943.
Hurry Up Please, It's Time, New York, 1946.
Anything But Love, New York, 1948.
But Say It Politely, Boston, 1954.
It's Still Spinach, Boston, 1954.
Writing as "Parasite," fashion items in the New Yorker, 1927-28. Columns in PM magazine, 1940-42.
New York and Hollywood Fashion: Costume Designs from the Brooklyn Museum Collection, New York, 1986.
Berch, Bettina, Radical by Design: The Life and Style of Elizabeth Hawes, New York, 1988.
Milbank, Caroline Rennolds, New York Fashion: The Evolution of American Style, New York, 1989.
Steele, Valerie, Women of Fashion, New York, 1991.
Obituary, in the New York Times, 8 September 1971.
Mahoney, Patrick R., "Elizabeth Hawes," in Notable American Women, New York, 1980.
——, "In and Out of Style," in Vassar Quarterly (New York),Spring 1986.
Berch, Bettina, "Early Feminist Fashion," in Ms. Magazine, March 1987.
Jones, Barbara, "Radical by Design (book review)," in The Nation, 6February 1989.
Brainy and articulate, Elizabeth Hawes challenged the fashion industry's dictum that stylish clothing must originate only in the salons of a handful of French couturiers, to be worn by a privileged few. Hawes was trained in the French system and from 1928 to 1940 her studio in New York provided custom-made clothing and accessories for a distinguished clientéle. A gifted publicist with a knack for self-promotion, Hawes successfully debunked the myth that beautiful clothes could only be created in Paris and became one of the first American designers to achieve national recognition. She saw no reason, however, why mass-produced clothing should not be equally as distinctive and she became increasingly interested in designing for the wholesale market. It was an unhappy collaboration: Hawes' clothes were both too simple and too forward-looking for most manufacturers. She found her ideas compromised time and time again in the finished product.
In her bestselling 1938 autobiography Fashion is Spinach, Hawes called fashion and the fashion industry parasites on true style. Style, she said, gives the feeling of the period, and changes only as there is a real change in point of view. Fashion, by contrast, changes not in response to events or to public taste or need, but because industry payrolls must be met, magazines published, a myth perpetuated.
Hawes despaired that most men and women were clothing conformists; in her view, clothes should be the expression of personality, of fantasy, and above all of individuality. If a woman occasionally wanted trousers to wear, or a man ruffles, she argued provocatively, why shouldn't they have them? The important thing was to dress to please yourself.
Hawes' iconoclastic theories about clothing were supported by solid academic and practical training. As an undergraduate she studied anatomy and economics before apprenticing herself to the workrooms of Bergdorf Goodman and Nicole Groult, among others. Her fluid bias-cut clothes moved with the body, revealing its natural curves. She believed a successful dress must fuse with the wearer, that line, in relationship to anatomy, was the basis for a beautiful dress. Not surprisingly, the designer Hawes most admired was Madeleine Vionnet.
Those who might not have been familiar with Hawes as a designer knew her as an author and journalist, a witty and astute critic of the fashion system. In her writing Hawes incited men and women to rebel against the status quo to speak up for clothing that suited the way they lived. She explained how the system worked against the consumer, producing shabbily made clothes that fit poorly and which were certainly not intended to last beyond a single season. Hawes disliked seeing women in unbecoming, uncomfortable clothes which cost more than they were worth, all in the name of fashion.
In 1940 Hawes turned her business over to her staff in order to concentrate on applying her theories about design to mass production. In her 1942 treatise, Why is a Dress?, Hawes said that she had come to regret the Paris training which prepared her for the past when the future clearly lay in ready-to-wear. Hawes once again found herself at moral and philosophical odds, however, with the wholesale garment manufacturers. She did not return to designing until 1948, and then only briefly.
Elizabeth Hawes was a visionary and an iconoclast. She was a designer of inventive clothing and a fashion writer whose analytic prose still illuminates the world of Seventh Avenue.
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