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Blass, William Ralph ("Bill")

BLASS, William Ralph ("Bill")

(b. 22 June 1922 in Fort Wayne, Indiana; d. 12 June 2002 in New Preston, Connecticut), fashion designer known for elegantly feminine dresses and dashing sporty clothes, as well as for establishing clean, modern, and impeccable style for women and men.

The only son of Ralph Blass, a hardware wholesaler, and Ethyl Keyser, a dressmaker, Blass longed to escape his small-town childhood. His father committed suicide when Blass was only five. "My mother never discussed it," he told a reporter later, and neither did he. Growing up during the Great Depression, Blass frequented the local movie theater and was inspired by the glamour of such Hollywood stars as Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo. "Something about glamour interested me," he later commented. "All my schoolbooks had drawings of women on terraces with a cocktail and a cigarette." His favorite glamour queen was Carole Lombard, whose family home was just down the street from his. "She inspired me to get out of Indiana."

By his early teens, Blass was selling fashion sketches to New York City fashion designers. He graduated from Fort Wayne High School in 1939, moved to New York City, and studied for six months at Parsons School of Design. He then worked as a sketch artist in the sportswear firm of David Crystal.

With the outbreak of World War II, Blass enlisted in the U.S. Army and was assigned to a secret camouflage unit known as the "Shadow Army," which was made up of architects and artists, including the future abstractionist Ellsworth Kelly. The unit set up fake artillery installations with inflatable tanks and with recordings of marching soldiers. Later Blass was a combat engineer and saw action at the Battle of the Bulge.

In 1945 Blass returned to New York and worked briefly with future archrival Anne Klein, who soon fired him. Blass then designed for Anna Miller through the 1950s. In 1959 he joined the firm of Maurice Rentner and quickly became head designer. The label was popular with wealthy dowagers, but Blass's designs for younger women expanded the line and instantly increased sales. He simplified previous designs, eliminated clutter of line, and included bold color. His 1960 spring collection combined two brilliant colors such as a hot pink suit with a bright turquoise hat. Smock dresses were belted with bow-tied leather sashes. A pink linen jacket was worn over a navy blue woolen dress.

The 1961 collection continued bold color and fabric combinations, and added embellishments, most notably ruffles. The dress line broke with the severe look of the 1950s, and it created a softer appearance and mood. For the 1962 fall collection, Blass created a soft basic dress under a jacket or coat of tailored precision.

Blass's designs for spring 1963 became his breakthrough collection, and won him his second of eight Coty awards. With soft and bright fabric, both the neckline and dress hem were ruffled. The dress became the best seller in the firm's history, as well as a hit with fashion critics. Eugenia Sheppard noted how it made both a woman's face and feet appear more becoming. A variant of the design in 1965 included jeweled buttons.

Blass's classic ruffled and soft-fabric dress became his trademark look throughout the 1960s. It created an elegant and feminine appearance that was appropriate for society ladies, and stood in opposition to the 1963 "mod" miniskirt of Mary Quant. For his part, Blass considered the mod look a "frantic youth kick."

Blass's 1966 spring collection emphasized two extremes: brilliant prints and soft, slinky crepes on the one hand, and simple white with daisies on the other. The summer collection included short, revealing evening dresses with deep slits in long sheaths. The provocative bare shoulders and low necklines were a part of that year's trend, but Blass never raised the hemline more than a few inches above the knee. Also that year Blass created a one-of-a-kind beige chantilly lace dress for model Jean Shrimpton, who wore it in a Revlon cosmetics ad, eliciting so much demand that the firm put the design into high production. Thus couture became ready-to-wear.

Blass introduced his menswear line in 1967. Deliberately styled to break away from the traditional gray flannel suit, his first year's look featured light fabrics, boldly colored shirts, and plaids. He won a 1968 Coty Award for these clothes, which are now the standard in men's wear.

In 1970 Blass bought out Rentner's firm and renamed it Bill Blass Ltd. It was then rare for an American designer to own his own firm. His mix-and-match chic of ruffled dresses and boldly colored evening dresses became a part of a turning point in fashion history. In 1973 the French fashion industry staged at Versailles a Franco-American showcase at which, after a tired show of French couture, Blass and other American designers caused a sensation. Blass became internationally renowned, and began the highly successful and lucrative licensing of his name on dozens of products, from luggage to perfume.

By courting society women and catering to their sense of elegant taste, Blass made a career of designing completely feminine clothes. "Women will look to the designer who interprets clothes in the way they like," Blass once commented. "I love his clothes," former first lady Nancy Reagan said, "because they are comfortable, wearable and pretty." Blass retired in 1999. He died of cancer in 2002, and his body was cremated.

Blass's memoir is Bare Blass (2002). See also Bernadine Morris, "Fashion Is Back in Fashion," New York Times (8 Dec. 1976); Samantha Miller, "A Touch of Blass," People Weekly (6 Dec. 1999); and Eric Wilson, "Bill Bares All," Womens Wear Daily (2 Feb. 2002). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times (both 13 June 2002).

Patrick S. Smith

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