Maxwell, Vera Huppé

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Maxwell, Vera Huppé

(b. 22 April 1901 in New York City; d. 15 January 1995 in Rincon, Puerto Rico), fashion designer whose classic designs were at the forefront of the women’s sportswear revolution of the post—World War II era.

Maxwell was one of three children of Bernard Alexander Huppé, a former aide-de-camp to Emperor Franz Joseph, and Irma Torges Honthumb, a homemaker. Because her parents, who came from Vienna, Austria, frequently traveled, Vera gained early impressions of Europe that were later reflected in her designs. At the age of ten she was in Vienna admiring the handsome uniforms of the Hussars, details of which she later interpreted in her “fencing” jacket.

Back in the United States, Vera Huppé was a student in public and private schools in the Bronx. She attended Leonia High School in New Jersey for one year, then entered the Metropolitan Opera School of Ballet in New York City. In 1919 she became a member of the Metropolitan Opera Ballet and danced professionally until her marriage on 21 October 1924 to Raymond J. Maxwell, who worked on Wall Street. They had one son.

Maxwell stopped dancing and found employment as a model for wholesale fashion houses on Seventh Avenue during the 1920s. From this exposure to the garment business, Maxwell learned about clothing construction, sketching, and design. She made clothes for herself and for other models who were her friends. The clothes she wore were noticed by one of the buyers at Best and Company, who encouraged Maxwell to become a professional designer.

Around 1925 Maxwell visited London, England, where she found garments designed by Coco Chanel to be profoundly inspiring. Like Chanel, Maxwell believed that clothes should be comfortable enough to move around in without constricting or pulling. From the beginning of her designing career, Maxwell created tweedy, man-tailored clothes for women. Chanel became her idol, so much so that later Maxwell was dubbed the “American Chanel.”

In 1929 Maxwell began modeling riding habits for manufacturers and also suits and coats for Linker and Klein in New York, who eventually employed her as a designer. She also began designing separates. One ensemble consisted of a reddish-brown tweed riding jacket paired with a gray skirt, a combination based on the classic British men’s outfit of a Harris tweed jacket and Oxford-gray, wool-flannel trousers. Other sportswear manufacturers for which Maxwell designed were Adler and Adler, Max Milstein, and Glenhunt. The 1930s were a period when women’s fashions were developing into modern sportswear, a movement in which Maxwell was in the forefront.

In 1935 Maxwell designed the “skirt dress,” which had the look of a suit but avoided the problem of blouses pulling out of skirts by pairing a sheath dress with a jacket or coat; this design became a classic in American fashion. Also in 1935, Maxwell invented her “Weekend Wardrobe,” a practical and ingenious collection of separate pieces. Inspired by Albert Einstein’s collarless tweed jacket, Maxwell designed a woman’s version in 1935—her own “Einstein Jacket,” to be worn with a gray flannel skirt. By 1937 Maxwell worked for Brows, Jacobson, and Linde, creating tailored clothes for active women engaged not only in riding and skiing but who appreciated casual playclothes and separates: slacks, skirts, jackets, and shorts. Also that year, Maxwell’s marriage ended in divorce. She married architect Carlisle H. Johnson on 17 November 1938.

By 1940 Maxwell had already designed her “fencing suit,” and the “Reefer suit” was in her collection as well. This latter suit was for daytime wear and consisted of a slim coat worn over a matching skirt and a simple blouse. Because economy of fabric was characteristic of Maxwell’s designs even before World War II, when restrictions on use of materials for clothes came into effect, Maxwell easily adjusted to them. She mainly worked in the silhouette that became most associated with the 1940s: broad-shouldered and narrow everywhere else. She created functional clothes for women involved in the war effort. One outstanding example was cotton overalls, the first women’s jumpsuits, which Maxwell designed for factory workers in the Sperry Gyroscope Corporation.

Again deriving inspiration from menswear, in 1942 Maxwell designed a suit jacket for women that was based on a lumberjack’s shirt, complete with envelope-style patch pockets. This was also the year when Maxwell introduced peasant and ethnic looks into her collection. Shorts were worn with simple tops and Peruvian jackets or with jackets fastened with crocheted buttons. A slit-sided, braid-edged mandarin coat was among Maxwell’s innovations. After the war ended, Maxwell softened the silhouette of her designs, showing pinched waists and more fullness in skirts.

Maxwell’s second marriage ended in divorce in 1945. In 1947 Vera Maxwell, Inc., offering “Vera Maxwell Originals,” opened. Maxwell did almost everything herself, working as president of the company, designer, public relations manager, and fabric buyer. The hard work paid off, as she became regarded as one of the leading sportswear designers, taking her place among the renowned Claire McCardell, Tina Leser, Claire Potter, Tom Brigance, and Sydney Wragge.

Maxwell’s clients appreciated the practicality and creativity of sportswear as well as the relatively moderate price compared to haute couture. During the 1950s Vera Maxwell Originals ensembles cost $125 for a three-piece suit, $245 for a dress and coat duo. An example of her philosophy of practical fashion was the “original flight suit,” a tweed coat with a plastic-lined pocket that could be used to store toiletries during a flight. This coat was paired with pants and a wool jersey blouse. Fluid jersey fabric was also used for wrap-tied blouses. Another use for jersey was for a long evening dress, worn with a long tweed coat. The three-piece vested suit for women, the Chesterfield coat worn with slacks, and the print dress paired with matching print-lined coat were among Maxwell’s innovations during this time. Home sewers could make Vera Maxwell two-piece suits for themselves thanks to Spadea’s American Designer Pattern series in the 1950s.

In 1951 Maxwell won the prestigious Coty American Fashion Critics’ Award. She continued to design classics like the princess coat dress, the fencing dress, and cotton dresses with matching linen coats. Maxwell made frequent buying trips abroad to bring back fine wools from Austria, silk prints from Italy, and handwoven silks from India. Among Maxwell’s loyal clients were Grace Kelly, Mrs. Leonard Bernstein, dancer Martha Graham, Pat Nixon, and actress Lillian Gish. Princess Grace was an especially good friend whom Maxwell often visited in Monaco. By 1960 Vera Maxwell Originals were sold in 700 stores throughout the United States.

In 1961 Maxwell staged a well-received twenty-five-year retrospective of her work at her Seventh Avenue salon. Many of her earlier designs compared well with her newer designs, and sometimes the two were difficult to tell apart. In 1962 she received the New York Fashion Designers Award. Maturing along with her clients during the 1960s, Maxwell ignored the miniskirt fashions and created conservative outfits in interesting fabrics or colors, but providing more coverage. In 1964 a collection of American Indian—inspired designs was a devastating failure, and Maxwell took a break from designing.

During her hiatus, Maxwell continued to show retrospective collections of her designs to women’s groups and dared fashion critics to guess the year when the clothes were designed. She also taught at the Parsons School of Design in New York, lectured and judged student work at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and acted as a consultant. By 1970 only 200 stores in the United States continued to carry Vera Maxwell clothing, but that same year a retrospective of her designs was held at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Encouraged by the enthusiasm that greeted this retrospective, Maxwell renewed her active role in fashion. In May 1970 she asked Morton Milstein, nephew of Max Milstein, to become a partner in her business. A fashion show at a tea held in her honor at B. Altman and Company in New York marked Maxwell’s comeback in the fall of 1970. In 1971 Maxwell made extensive use of the new miracle textile, Ultrasuede, which she employed for coats, suits, and dresses. Ultrasuede is an easy-care fabric that took color well and could be used year-round without the special care required by real suede.

In 1972 Maxwell showed a collection including classic knit coats over pants or dresses and sleeveless, slit-sided “Paletot” Ultrasuede coats. The “Speed Suit,” so named because it was a stretch dress with an elasticized waist that could be quickly pulled over the head, was Maxwell’s revolutionary fashion contribution in 1974. In various lengths it became a staple in Maxwell’s collections thereafter. It has been said that the Speed Suit was an inspiration to Donna Karan’s fashion philosophy.

Maxwell attributed the longevity of her designs and her business to a devotion to “style” rather than “fashion,” creating classics that could be worn for years. Another reason for the popularity of her originals was her recognition that there are many different sizes and shapes of women. Her “misses” sizes went up to size twenty, and there were collections for petite women under five feet tall. The Vera Maxwell Fashion Gallery in the Museum of the City of New York was dedicated in 1981.

Maxwell stayed active in the community; an opera lover, she was a member of the Metropolitan Opera Guild. In 1985 she closed her business, which had been headquartered at 530 Seventh Avenue in New York City. Nevertheless, the following year Maxwell designed a collection of dresses, coats, and sportswear for the Peter Lynne Division of Gulf Enterprises. In 1992 Maxwell sold her Manhattan apartment to live with her son in Gilgo Beach, Long Island. During one of their winter vacations in Rincon, Puerto Rico, Maxwell died of a stroke at the age of ninety-three.

Examples of Vera Maxwell Originals are in the collection of the Museum of the City of New York. Sometimes garments by Maxwell appear for sale on the Internet. Caroline Rennolds Milbank traced Maxwell’s career in Couture: The Great Designers (1985) and in New York Fashion: The Evolution of American Style (1989). A biographical essay appeared in Current Biography (1977), and costume historian Jean Druesedow wrote a critical essay on Maxwell’s contribution to fashion in Contemporary Fashion (1995). Obituaries are in the New York Times (20 Jan. 1995) and Los Angeles Times (21 Jan. 1995).

Therese Duzinkiewicz Baker