Elizabeth Hawes (1901–1971) belonged to the first generation of American designers who succeeded in making a name for themselves as individuals outside the sphere of the Parisian couture. In 1925 Hawes graduated from Vassar College, where she was an economics major sympathetic to socialism, but she pursued an interest in fashion by participating in school theatricals and making her own clothes. By graduation she had decided to go to Paris and learn fashion design. Hawes spent the next three years in various positions within the couture business: as a design copyist, journalist, and assistant designer. During this time she wrote a fashion column for The New Yorker, using the pen name "Parisite." She also worked briefly for Nicole Groult, the sister of the designer Paul Poiret. Her life in Paris was divided between socializing with her wealthy Vassar friends and engaging in the bohemian life; she spent much of her time with an artistic crowd, including the sculptors Alexander Calder and Isamo Noguchi.
Hawes's Vassar education gave her the critical faculty to dissect the couture industry and the fashion press, while her social connections and her exposure to couture at the highest levels left her ambivalent about fashion, a feeling that grew all the stronger for her love of its creative potential. In 1928 Hawes returned to New York and started her own custom dressmaking business with a Vassar classmate, Rosemary Harden. Harden left the business one year later, and Hawes decided to continue on her own as Hawes, Inc. Advertising, for which Hawes herself wrote the copy, helped business pick up significantly. Calder and Noguchi designed decorative objects for her New York showroom and influenced Hawes's own work. In 1930 Hawes married the artist Ralph Jester, whom she had known in Paris; they divorced in 1934.
Fashion and Politics
In 1932 Hawes and two other young American designers were promoted by the Lord and Taylor department store. This was one of the earliest attempts (if not the first) to prove that there was homegrown talent worthy of the public's notice. Hawes fully understood the power of publicity and exploited it. The ensembles in her collections were named according to themes: Spring/Summer 1933 was political, and the collection included such ensembles as "The Five Year Plan," a cotton nightgown and bed jacket; "the Yellow Peril," a silk afternoon dress; and "Disarmament," an embroidered evening dress. Her work was characterized by a bold use of fabrics—wide strips and large prints were used in simple, comfortable silhouettes. Hawes was an early advocate of trousers for women and wore them often herself.
In 1935 Hawes traveled to the Soviet Union to explore her growing interest in mass-produced clothing; as part of this trip, she showed some of her designs to members of the Soviet State Clothing Production Board, known as the Soviet Dress Trust. During her trip to the Soviet Union, she was accompanied by the theatrical director Joseph Losey, whom she married in 1937. The next year brought the birth of their son, Gavrick, and the publication of her first major work as an author: Fashion Is Spinach. This was Hawes's manifesto, and in it she expounds on the difference between "style" and "fashion" and how women are manipulated by the fashion industry:
Style …gives you the fundamental feeling of a certain period in history. Style doesn't change every month or every year…. Fashion is that horrid little man with an evil eye who tells you that last winter's coat may be in perfect physical condition, but you can't wear it. (pp. 5–6)
Hawes's criticism was not limited to women's clothing; she maintained that men needed to be freed from their conservative attitudes toward clothing. She staged an all-male fashion show in 1937, showing brightly colored clothes of her own design. This led to her next book, Men Can Take It, published in 1939. She could be considered the Dorothy Parker of fashion criticism, with her snappy tone and tell-it-straight attitude.
Hawes, Inc., closed early in January 1940. The onset of World War II had firmly awakened Hawes's social conscience, and she felt that being a fashion designer was not an appropriate career for her at that time. She became committed to her career as a writer, becoming involved in writing for the new left-wing paper, PM. In 1943 she took a job in a munitions factory for three months and then relocated to Detroit to work for the United Auto Worker's Union, where she also wrote for the Detroit Free Press. The result of her war work was her fifth book, Why Women Cry; or, Wenches with Wrenches (1943).
In 1948 Hawes made a last attempt at the fashion business and reopened Hawes, Inc., for eleven months. To demonstrate the timelessness of her designs, she played a game at the inaugural show, making guests guess which designs were new and which were from 1930s collections. Hawes settled in Southern California in the early 1950s. While she experimented with the production of knitwear, creating simple shapes decorated with abstract patterns, she spent the majority of her time writing. Her most rewarding experience during this period was her association with the young designer Rudi Gernriech, in whom she found a kindred spirit. In 1967 a retrospective of their work was mounted at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
Hawes moved back to New York in 1967 and lived in the Chelsea Hotel until her death on 6 September 1971. In total, she published nine books on fashion and culture as well as numerous articles in journals ranging from the left-leaning PM to the Ladies' Home Journal. In reality, her clothes did not appear radical for their time; it was her outspoken philosophy that set her apart.
Berch, Bettina. Radical by Design: The Life and Style of Elizabeth Hawes. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1988.
Hawes, Elizabeth. "The American Designer Has Not Yet Been Born." Magazine of Art April 1937.
——. Fashion Is Spinach. New York: Random House, 1938.
Mahoney, Patrick. "In and Out of Style." Vassar Quarterly 82, no. 2 (Spring 1986): 8–10.
Steele, Valerie. Women of Fashion: Twentieth-Century Designers. New York: Rizzoli International, 1991.
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.