Born: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 4 February 1926. Education: Studied at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Military Service: Served in the U.S. Army. Career: Joined Hattie Carnegie, late 1940s, as window-dresser, later designer; designer, Elfreda Fox; designed custom clothes, Philadelphia; sketch artist for Mme. Fath and freelance sketch artist, Paris, 1952-54; designer, Hattie Carnegie fashion house, New York, 1954-55; managed own design firm, Los Angeles, 1956-72; took over design at Norman Norell, New York, after death of Norell, 1972-76; designer, Michael Forrest Furs, 1976; reestablished own firm, from 1976. Awards: International Silk Association award, 1959; Coty American Fashion Critics award, 1961; Cotton Council Fashion award, 1963.
Levin, Phyllis Lee, The Wheels of Fashion, Garden City, New York, 1956.
Lambert, Eleanor, World of Fashion: People, Places, Resources, New York, 1976.
Morris, Bernadine, and Barbara Walz, The Fashion Makers, New York, 1978.
Milbank, Caroline Rennolds, New York Fashion: The Evolution of American Style, New York, 1989.
Stegemeyer, Anne, Who's Who in Fashion, Third Edition, New York, 1996.
Fashion profile, in Holiday, June 1962.
Several articles in the New York Times, 24 January 1974, 6 August 1974, 8 August 1975, 12 July 1976.
Houser, Dave G., "The Attic Spirit; Gustave Tassell's Paean to Greece in Los Angeles," in Architectural Digest, September 1983.***
White gloves and pearls were the accessories one needs to wear with the refined, graceful designs of American Gustave Tassell. He designed for women who had a built-in serenity and who were not out to shock. His designs went beyond fringe and ruffle and were noted for their sense of proportion, simplicity of line, and refined detail.
Among the notable people who have worn Tassell designs were Princess Grace of Monaco and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis—especially the latter who very influential in the fashion field when she was First Lady of the United States. She wore simple clothes, favoring sleeveless dresses without a defined waistline or much detail. Tassell's creations were perfect for the First Lady; they were youthful, elegant, without unnecessary details or defined waistlines. They would glide over the body rather than hugging it, his designs were elegant and easy to wear.
Tassell had a New York showroom, but the base of his operation was in Los Angeles. There he maintained a small organization and workroom which insured top notch quality at relatively low cost. He did not produce the extremes of fashion. In Holiday magazine (June 1962) he said "forget fashion, you can't go around startling people all the time." Fabrics were important, peau d'ange and quilted cotton damask added interest; bugle beads were used, in an understated manner, for eveningwear.
Through the use of seams, tucks, and gathers, Tassell was able to create sculptural forms which skimmed over the body, rather than a tight fit. The look was graceful and feminine. Skirts could be bell shaped, or gathered gently. The seams of a princess-style dress curved to suggest the bust and waistline. He designed clothes for both evening and daytime wear—separates, dresses, and coats. He designed versions of the black dinner dress, the shirtwaist, culottes, and the reefer coat. His interpretation was always graceful and feminine. In 1961 he received the Coty American Fashion Critics award.
Tassell did not start out to be a fashion designer, but studied painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Moving to New York, he worked in the advertising and display department for Hattie Carnegie, who was well known in the fashion design world for both custom-made and ready-to-wear clothes. Seeing the design work of Norman Norell inspired Tassell's decision to create clothes for women.
In the early 1950s Tassell moved to Europe where he did fashion sketches for Geneviéve Fath and became acquainted with American designer James Galanos. It was through the encouragement of Galanos that Tassell eventually began his own business in 1956 in California, though the designs Tassell produced were closer in concept to those of Norell than Galanos. In 1972, when Norman Norell died, Tassell was asked to come to New York to maintain the line. He did this under the name House of Norell, Gustave Tassell. The Norman Norell line was permanently closed in 1976 and Tassell returned to California where he again turned out his sophisticated designs for a small group of customers.
Tassell's design sensibility changed little from the 20 to the 21st century—he sought to create forward-looking fashion appropriate for elegant, confident women. He envisioned designs in natural fibers able to serve many purposes, with changing silhouette according to how the garment was buttoned, seamed, or tucked. Tassell aimed to produce affordable clothing with a sense of proportion, grace, and design.