Born: Oakland, California, 1915. Education: Studied at the Art Students League, New York, and also in Paris. Family: Briefly married to Robert Sterner. Career: Costume designer, Roxy Theater, New York, 1934-37; designer, Adler and Adler sportswear, NewYork, 1937-43 and 1949-52; costume designer, Twentieth Century Fox, Los Angeles, California, 1943-49; designer, Bonnie Cashin Designs (with partner Phillip Sills), New York, 1953-77; established The Knittery, 1972; founder, Innovative Design Fund, circa 1981. Exhibitions: Brooklyn Museum (retrospective), 1962; Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997; Fashion Institute of Technology (retrospective, "Bonnie Cashin, Practical Dreamer"), September 2000. Awards: Neiman Marcus award, Dallas, Texas, 1950; Coty American Fashion Critics award, New York, 1950, 1960, 1961, 1968, 1972; Sporting Look award, 1958; Philadelphia Museum College of Art citation, 1959; Woolknit Associates Design award, 1959, 1961; Lighthouse award, 1961; Sports Illustrated award, 1963; Detroit Business Association, national award, 1963; the Sunday Times International Fashion award, London, 1964; Leather Industries American Handbag Designer award, 1968, 1976; Kaufmann Fashion award, Pittsburgh, 1968; Creator citation, Saks Fifth Avenue, 1969; Mary Mount College Golden Needle award, 1970; Hall of Fame, 1972; I. Magnin's Great American award, 1974; American Fashion award for furs, 1975; Drexel University citation, Philadelphia, 1976; inducted to Fashion Walk of Fame, Seventh Avenue, New York, 2001. Died: 3 February 2000.
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An awareness of the body in motion informs Bonnie Cashin's design style. Her earliest efforts were created for dancers: as a California high school student, Cashin costumed the local ballet troupe, Franchon & Marco. After graduating from high school, she became the company's costume designer and later, with the encouragement of the troupe's manager, moved to New York to study dance and take classes at the Art Students' League. Soon after moving, Cashin began making costumes for the Roxy Theater, which during the 1930s was a major competitor to Radio City Music Hall's Rockettes. An article in Variety described Cashin as the "youngest designer to hit Broadway." During her tenure as house costumer with the famed Roxy Theater, which she considered her "formal schooling in design,"she designed three sets of costumes a week for the Roxy's chorus of 24 dancing showgirls. With minimal budgets, Cashin used her ingenuity, a little paint, and knowledge learned from her mother, a custom dressmaker, to transform inexpensive fabrics into striking costumes that looked equally graceful in motion or in repose. Whether for stage or street, Cashin's work has always been styled for the active woman on the move, who prefers an easy, individual look with a minimum of fuss. The May 1970 issue of Current Biography quoted her as saying, "All I want is to speak simply in my designing; I don't want the gilt and the glamor."
A 1937 production number, in which the Roxy dancers emerged smartly dressed from between the pages of a fashion magazine, sent Cashin in a new direction. Louis Adler, co-owner of the sportswear firm Adler and Adler, saw Cashin's designs and recognized her potential importance to the fashion industry. Wary of the garment district's regimentation, Cashin initially played it safe. She stayed on in the familiar collegial world of the theater and freelanced for Adler. In 1938 Cashin left the theater to work for Adler, quickly earning a name in the ready-to-wear fashion circles. When the U.S. entered World War II, Cashin was appointed to a committee to design uniforms for the women in the armed forces. Her designs for the mass-produced uniforms were practical—they were protective, comfortable, and allowed for freedom of movement. The uniforms were made from long-lasting fabrics such as canvas and leather, featuring large pockets, toggle fastenings, and industrial-size zippers. Eventually she signed with the firm and designed for about 12 years before and after World War II.
After a brief marriage to art director Robert Sterner, and having become frustrated with the Seventh Avenue fashion scene, Cashin returned to California where she exercised her talents in a completely new arena—the motion picture industry. Cashin began working for Twentieth Century Fox in 1943, where she designed wardrobes for more than 60 films including such classics Laura, Anna and the King of Siam and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. In 1949 Cashin returned to New York and began designing again for Adler and Adler, and the following year won both the Neiman Marcus award and the first of five Coty awards for a prototype of her signature Noh coat, an unlined, sleeved or sleeveless T-shaped coat with deeply cut armholes to wear singly, in combination, or under a poncho or cape. Despite this success, Cashin sensed she would never achieve her creative best working under contract in the profit-oriented canyons of Seventh Avenue. She began designing on a freelance basis in 1953, creating Bonnie Cashin Designs from her studio, which was located across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Unusual for the time, she worked on a royalty basis, creating complete coordinated wardrobes— accessories, knits, capes and coats, dresses, and separates—to be combined in layers to suit the climate or the event.
On a trip to Japan during the early 1950s, the practical aspects of the kimono, a garment consisting of a variable number of layers, was described to Cashin. In terms of the ever-changing weather, the kimono was especially appropriate for cooler temperatures or what the Japanese described as a "nine-layer day." Upon her return to New York, Cashin "introduced" the concept of layering garments into Western fashion. Of course, people around the world had been dressing in layers to accommodate the climate for centuries, but as an obituary in the Economist explained, "Fashion writers are ever grateful for something that looks new, and for a while layering was praised as the big new idea."
As Cashin had so aptly explained to one reporter, "fashion evolved from need." Cashin's unusual ideas were welcomed and she typically worked years ahead of the market, pioneering clothing concepts which today seem part of fashion's essential vocabulary. In the 1950s when most women's clothing was concerned with structure, the Cashin silhouette was based on the rectangle or the square and called for a minimum of darting and seaming. Cashin showed layered dressing long before the concept became a universal option; she brought canvas boots and raincoats out of the show ring and into the street in 1952 and she introduced jumpsuits as early as 1956.
Signature pieces included her Noh coats, funnel-necked sweaters whose neck doubles as a hood, classic ponchos, and such innovations as a bicycle sweater with roomy back pockets. Other Cashin hallmarks were her use of toggle closures, leather piping, and pairing various fabrics such as tweeds with tartan plaid or suede. Other notable Cashin "icons" were her leather coats and jackets made by leather manufacturer Phillip Sills. Cashin introduced handbags into her collections as far back as the 1930s, and in the early 1960s designed bags for Coach. She also created rainwear designs for Modelia and gloves for Crescendoe-Superb.
Very likely because of her early work in the theater, both color and especially texture played a starring role in Cashin's designs. An organza Noh coat could be trimmed with linen and shown over a sweater dress of cashmere. A jersey sheath could be paired with an apron-wrap skirt cut from a boisterous tweed. Her palette was both subtle and controlled—earth tones, sparked with vivid accents. Cashin has been recognized as one of the few women fashion designers who made an impact on American fashion during a time when Parisan designers were dominant on the runway
For several decades Cashin created a myriad of fashion items and has been identified as a pioneer of American sportswear design. In 1978 New York Times fashion writer Bernadine Morris called Cashin "an American fashion institution." She was recognized with some two dozen awards, was a featured designer for one of Lord & Taylor's "American Design Rooms,"and influenced fashion industry giants. Cashin professed a "profound distaste" for the fashion industry and retired in the mid-1980s. She died in February 2000 at the age of 84. Several months after her death, a retrospective of her work, entitled "Bonnie Cashin, Practical Dreamer," was organized at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology. The retrospective featured Cashin's most identifiable creations along with several personal artifacts from her apartment; where she was among the first to move her work space and living space into the United Nations Plaza during the 1960s. Even before her death, many of her fashion items came to attention of collectors and in 1997 some of her clothes were exhibited at Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. According to the exhibit catalogue, Cashin's designs reflected "democracy's magnitude and the consequence of independent and intrepid women."
Bonnie Cashin worked to her own brief, designing for women who were smart, active, self-aware, and, like herself, of independent mind.
updated by Christine MinerMinderovic
American fashion designer Bonnie Cashin (1915–2000) was often referred to as one of the "Mothers of American Sportswear." Her productive career spanned over 40 years and ranged from dance halls to Hollywood to Seventh Avenue. Devoted to functional, uncomplicated designs, Cashin's many important innovations included a loose-fitting turtleneck that did not require a zipper to don, jumpsuits, and ponchos. Small wonder that one of her favorite catch phrases was "Chic is where you find it."
California to New York
Cashin was born on September 28, 1915, in Oakland, California. Her father, Carl, was a photographer/inventor (whose customary coveralls later inspired her to design the first woman's jumpsuit) and her mother, Eunice, was a dressmaker and major influence on her life. With her mother's encouragement, Cashin was already drawing sketches of clothing by the time she was eight, and as a mere high school student she got her first job as a designer.
Cashin was a 16-year-old senior at Hollywood High School when she went to audition to be a chorus girl for Franchon & Marco, a Los Angeles dance troupe. Rather than ending up dancing with the troupe, however, her sketches convinced the manager to hire the teenager as the group's costume designer. He was sufficiently impressed with her work to suggest that Cashin go to New York City to study at the Art Students League. She happily did so, and soon found herself the chief costume designer for the Roxy Theater's "Roxyettes," the theater's answer to Radio City's "Rockettes" in the 1930s. Cashin was only 19 when she landed the job, prompting Variety to hail her as "the youngest designer to ever hit Broadway," according to Amy M. Spindler of the New York Times Magazine.
While Cashin was designing for the Roxy, Harper's Bazaar editor Carmel Snow attended a performance that included a dance number inspired by her magazine. Snow admired the young designer's costumes so much that she arranged for Cashin to become a designer at the prestigious house of Adler & Adler. Cashin worked there from 1937 until 1943. She also, along with such designing luminaries as Claire McCardell and Vera Maxwell, contributed to the war effort during World War II by designing civilian defense uniforms for women workers. The juxtaposition between the utilitarian aspects of the latter and the glamorous showgirls' costumes with which Cashin had started out did much to define what became her signature style.
In 1943 Cashin traded the East Coast for the West, and signed on as a designer for 20th Century Fox in Hollywood. She stayed for six years and created clothes for many movies, such as Claudia (1943), Laura (1944), A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), Anna and the King of Siam (1946), I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now (1947), The Snake Pit (1948), and Mr. Belvedere Goes to College (1949). Other films included The Eve of St. Mark (1944), The House on 92nd Street (1945), Give My Regards to Broadway (1948), and It Happens Every Spring (1949). Of all these, however, it is likely that Laura was the most influential.
Motion pictures of the 1940s tended to showcase their female stars as glamorous ladies of leisure or kittenish young vixens. But Cashin's designs for Laura's star, Gene Tierney, were of a different ilk altogether. As Ethel King of the London Guardian put it, "Gene Tierney's wardrobe … is like no other of the period. She wore, not costumes for an actress's part, but real clothes that could have been owned by a real woman: separates, a witty raincoat and hat. They, more than the script or playing, suggest Laura chooses what she wears: not to advertise nubility or family wealth but to please herself." It was a revolutionary concept and aptly reflected Cashin's real-life views. By 1949, she was headed back to New York to further implement them.
The Bonnie Cashin Look
After Cashin's return to New York, she briefly went back to work for Adler & Adler, winning both the American Designers Coty Award and the Neiman Marcus Award in 1950. But she continued to chafe under the restraints of what she saw as Seventh Avenue's staid and traditional mindset. Indeed, Suzy Menkes of the International Herald Tribune cited one of Cashin's famous quips as, "Much of what is merely dull is called classic." So she set about creating her own style.
In the early 1950s, Cashin opened a studio called "Bonnie Cashin Designs." Her clothes were designed with a comfort, functionality, and practicality that embraced the newly-emerging independent woman and eschewed the ultra-femininity of the time. As design historian and Cashin friend Stephanie Day Iverson told Lisa Schmeiser of Investor's Business Daily, "She didn't design for trends or fads. She had a very distinct philosophy in look and dress." That philosophy was clearly displayed by, for instance, the name of her first collection, "We Live as We Please," as well as by the clothes themselves.
As early as 1943, Cashin had demonstrated her innovation and outlook by showing boots worn with tweed suits. Other pioneering designs included canvas raincoats (1952), industrial zippers (1955), and the jumpsuits inspired by her father (1957). Many of her most famous looks stemmed from her search for pragmatic solutions to situations in her own life. Those included the poncho, which came about after she cut a hole into a blanket in order to stay warm while driving her convertible, and clips to hike up a long skirt in the front, which were born from Cashin's effort to carry a cocktail upstairs without mishap. Brass toggles to close handbags and coats, as well as to decorate gloves, were inspired by those that anchored her convertible's top. As she often noted, "Chic is where you find it."
Through the course of being one of the first designers to create and popularize women's sportswear, Cashin introduced other unique designs, later standards in the fashion industry. Among these were a roomy turtleneck that did not need a zipper to get it over one's head, the concepts of layering to deal with temperature changes and the use of such heavyweight materials as leather (she was the first to do a leather dress). Some were utilitarian, such as the now ubiquitous leather tote modeled after a paper shopping bag, and others more whimsical, such as fringed suede dresses; but all were created with the new vibrant, modern woman in mind.
Cashin was uncompromising in her work. She refused to be tied to one label, feeling it would crimp her style. Instead, she collaborated with companies such as Bergdorf Goodman, Liberty of London, American Airlines, Samsonite, and White Stag, that allowed her total creative control. Nor did she ever have a design assistant, preferring to personally monitor each creation from sketch to production. The licensing boom of the 1970s did not tempt her either, although it undoubtedly would have made her an even wealthier woman. Eric Wilson and Janet Ozzard of WWD quoted Cashin's comments on this unusual autonomy as, "I didn't want to be boxed in by any one company or any one design problem. I thought I'd let my mind run freely. I wanted to design everything a woman puts on her body. I felt that designing for the entire body was like an artist's composition."
Such independence did not stop Cashin from forming some quite notable alliances, however. Perhaps most prom-inent among them were those with leather manufacturer Philip Sills and leather goods maker Coach. She worked with the latter as its original designer from the early 1960s until 1974, for example, and revitalized the company's line with such customer-pleasing ideas as sprightly colors and handbags with attached change purses and zip compartments. One of her standouts for the former was her hallmark cream leather jacket with equine clasps. In short, her business requirements may have been unusual, but they appeared to suit both Cashin and her fans just fine.
Life of Beauty and Style
Cashin traveled widely during her life, and took much inspiration from those experiences. As Spindler quoted her, "My interests are people and how they look. I remember the way a fisherman wore his shirt in Portofino—the odd chic of the beige and white starched habit of a little nun in Spain—the straw hat of a man riding a donkey in Rhodes—a man's wedding scarf in India—the elegant drape of a panung in Bangkok." So great was her fascination with other countries and sense of generosity that she was known to return home with a completely different wardrobe from the one she had departed with. That was because she gave away her things to anyone who admired them, and was equally happy to acquire local garments. Naturally, such predilections were often reflected in her designs.
Cashin was also a lover of beauty in her surroundings, and while on the road she adorned her hotel rooms with Thai silks and bouquets of flowers. At home in her apartment overlooking New York's East River, she surrounded herself with color provided by her own clothing designs displayed in open closets and on exposed shelves, as well as with the work of such contemporaries as Charles and Ray Eamse and Isamu Noguchi. In Victoria, Iverson described Cashin's home: "Like her fashions, Bonnie's apartment, dazzlingly sunny, informal and intellectual, was autobiographical…. It was a kinetic collage of shapes, textures and colors."
In 1972 Cashin was inducted into the Coty American Fashion Critics Hall of Fame. That same year she founded The Knittery, a company devoted to the manufacture of hand-knitted clothing from hand-spun yarns. Along the way, she had also established the Innovative Design Fund, dedicated to funding prototypes of objects for personal or domestic use, as well as served as an advisor to the government of India concerning the development of textiles for export. Clearly, her interests and accomplishments were as diverse as those of the women who wore her clothing.
By 2000 plans for a retrospective on Cashin's work at New York's Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology and a book by Iverson were in the works. Her designs had been incorporated, adapted, and adopted by so many and become such a part of contemporary styling that they no longer seemed as cutting-edge and avant garde as they once had. And that, of course, was the ultimate testament to their influence. Cashin would likely have understood that perfectly, as evidenced by her words cited by Rosemary Feitelberg of WWD. "The moment you think of an idea, it is no longer yours exclusively," she said.
Cashin died on February 3, 2000. A year later, she received a plaque on the Fashion Walk of Fame.
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One of America's foremost designers in the second half of the twentieth century, Bonnie Cashin (1908–2000) was a pioneer in the sportswear industry, specializing in modular wardrobes for the modern woman "on the go." Her lifelong interest in clothing design, however, encompassed a number of careers on both American coasts. Growing up in California, Cashin worked as an apprentice in a series of dressmaking shops owned and operated by her mother, Eunice. In her teens she worked as a fashion illustrator and dance costume designer. Between 1943 and 1949 she costumed more than sixty films at Twentieth Century–Fox. It was not until midcentury, when she was over forty years old, that she began designing the ready-to-wear for which she became best known.
Cashin favored timeless shapes from the history of clothing, such as ponchos, tunics, Noh coats, and kimonos, which allowed for ease of movement and manufacture. Approaching dress as a form of collage or kinetic art, she favored luxurious, organic materials that she could "sculpt" into shape, such as leather, suede, mohair, wool jersey, and cashmere, as well as nonfashion materials, including upholstery fabrics. Cashin's aim was to create "simple art forms for living in, to be re-arranged as mood and activity dictates" (Interview 1999).
As a girl moving along the California coastline, Cashin developed a love for travel and a keen eye for the clothing of different cultures, which would underpin her later professional work. This interest in "why people looked the way they did" placed her in good stead to begin work in 1924, alongside Helen Rose, as a costume designer for the Los Angeles dance troupe Fanchon and Marco. In 1934 her producers took over performances at New York's Roxy Theater and asked Cashin to join them as costumer for the Roxyette dance line, the precursors and rivals to the Rockettes.
Fashion and Film
In 1937 the Harper's Bazaar editor Carmel Snow, an admirer of Cashin's costume designs, encouraged Bonnie to work in fashion and arranged for her to become the head designer for the prestigious coat and suit manufacturer Adler and Adler. Owing to the wartime focus on American fashion design, she became so well recognized that she was commissioned to design World War II civilian defense uniforms and was featured in a Coca-Cola advertisement. By 1942, however, Cashin felt boxed in by wartime restrictions. She returned to California to sign a six-year contract as a costume designer with Twentieth Century–Fox.
Cashin designed costumes for the female characters in more than sixty films. Her favorite projects, Laura (1944), A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), and Anna and the King of Siam (1946), also became American cinematic classics. Designing for the lavish productions that typified Hollywood's golden age, she was expected to make innovative use of the day's finest materials to create historical, fantasy, and contemporary wardrobes. She used the resources at the Fox studios to experiment with designs for "real" clothing that she wore and made in custom versions for her leading ladies' offscreen wardrobes.
Return to Ready-to-Wear
Cashin returned to New York, and to Adler and Adler, in 1949. She received the unprecedented honor of earning both the Neiman Marcus Award and the Coty Fashion Critic's Award within the same year (1950). Displeased, however, with her manufacturer's control over her creativity, she decided to challenge the setup of the fashion industry. Working with multiple manufacturers, she designed a range of clothing at different price points, thereby specializing in complete wardrobes for "my kind of a girl for a certain kind of living."
In 1953 Cashin teamed with the leather importer and craftsman Philip Sills and initiated the use of leather for high fashion. She made her name through her unconventional choices in materials as well as her inexhaustible variations on her favorite theme of adapting the flat, graphic patterns of Asian and South American clothing to contemporary global living. Through her work for Sills and Company, she is credited with introducing "layering" into the fashion lexicon. In turn, she credited the Chinese tradition of dressing for, and interpreting the weather as, a "one-shirt day" or a "seven-shirt day." Her layered garments snugly nestled within one another and were easily converted to suit different temperatures and activities by donning or removing a layer. Cashin's objective was to create a flexible wardrobe for her own globe-trotting lifestyle, wherein seasonal changes were only a plane trip away. Frustrated by the categorization of sportswear designer, she declared that travel was her "favorite sport."
Coach and the Cashin Look
In 1962 Cashin became the first designer of Coach handbags and initiated the use of hardware on clothing and accessories, including the brass toggle that became Coach's hallmark. She revolutionized the handbag industry. Unlike contemporary rigid, hand-held bags, her vividly colored "Cashin-Carries" for Coach packed flat and had wide straps, attached coin purses, industrial zippers, and the famous sturdy brass toggles, the last inspired by the hardware used to secure the top on her convertible sports car.
Without licensing her name, Cashin designed cashmere separates, gloves, canvas totes, at-home gowns and robes, raincoats, umbrellas, and furs. She also ran the Knittery, a consortium of British mills that produced oneof-a-kind sweaters knit to shape, rather than cut and sewn. Among many other industry awards, she received the Coty award five times and entered their hall of fame in 1972; in 2001 was honored with a plaque on the Fashion Walk of Fame on Seventh Avenue in New York City.
Cashin worked until 1985, when she decided to focus on painting and philanthropy. Among several scholarships and educational programs, she established the James Michelin Lecture Series at the California Institute of Technology. Cashin died in New York on 3 February 2000 from complications during heart surgery. In 2003 the Bonnie Cashin Collection, consisting of her entire design archive and endowments for design-related lecture series and symposia, was donated to the Department of Special Collections within the Charles E. Young Research Library at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Cashin, Bonnie. Interview by Stephanie Day Iverson. 12 September 1999.
Iverson, Stephanie Day. "'Early' Bonnie Cashin, before Bonnie Cashin Designs, Inc." Studies in the Decorative Arts 8, no. 1 (2001–2002): 108–124.
Steele, Valerie. Women of Fashion: Twentieth-Century Designers. New York: Rizzoli International, 1991.
Stephanie Day Iverson