Hattie Carnegie, Inc.
During the 1930s, Hattie Carnegie was one of America's top fashion designers. She propagated the " little black dress" for daytime wear, trained a new generation of designers, and made her creations available to the middle class by selling ready-to wear clothes for modest prices.
Hattie Carnegie was born Henrietta Kanengeiser, the second of seven children in Vienna in 1889. After a fire destroyed their home in the suburbs of Vienna, her father, Isaac Kanengeiser, took the family to the United States. They moved to the Lower East Side of New York City, where Hattie attended public school.
Hattie's father, an artist and designer, worked in New York's garment industry, and introduced her to the fashion world. When Hattie was 13, her father died and she was forced to leave school. To help support the family, she started working for Macy's. However, following her true passion, she designed hats for neighborhood women in her spare time. Soon after, Hattie got a job trimming hats in a millinery workroom and worked as a millinery model. She changed her name from Kanengeiser to Carnegie, in admiration of the wealthy Andrew Carnegie.
Carnegie was married three times. After two short marriages in 1918 and 1922, she finally married John Zanft in 1927. Called "an East Side boy himself" in Current Biography 1942, John was "the love of her life since she was thirteen years old." However, while her husband spent most of his time on the west coast working for the movie industry, Carnegie worked mainly in New York and Paris.
After her business had grown, Carnegie provided all her brothers and sisters with important positions. One of her sisters, for example, was a director of her company, one brother was secretary and treasurer, while another brother was in charge of the main wholesale department in New York.
Hattie Carnegie was a tiny, slender, and very attractive woman. She loved clothes and always dressed in the most current mode, but never wore hats. Carnegie enjoyed giving dinner parties and going out for dinner or dancing, and she had a weakness for gambling. She also collected antique furniture, modern paintings, and old porcelains.
Her outstanding work was recognized by two awards: the Neimann-Marcus Award in 1939 and the Coty American Fashion Critics' Award for "consistent contribution to American elegance" in 1948. Hattie Carnegie died on February 22, 1956 in New York City.
Carnegie started her career as a milliner. In 1909, she started her first business. Encouraged by Rose Roth, a friend and neighbor who was a seamstress, she opened a shop on East Tenth Street called "Carnegie-Ladies Hatter." Rose made dresses; Hattie designed hats, modeled the rather expensive clothes and took care of customers.
The shop's success enabled Carnegie and Roth to incorporate with $100,000 in capital in 1913 and they moved to West 86th Street, close to fashionable Riverside Drive. The New Yorker stated, "The shop was on a corner of Broadway, with a delicatessen on one side and a Chinese restaurant on the other, and pungent cooking fumes invaded the place as rich women flocked in." After World War I, Carnegie bought out her partner, founded Hattie Carnegie, Inc., and became its president and major stockholder. The shop soon became popular among followers of fashion and was a tremendous success. In 1919, Hattie Carnegie made her first buying trip to Paris and became devoted to Paris fashion. She moved her business to the fashionable Upper East Side of New York in 1926. By 1929, the company's sales had reached $3.5 million a year.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Carnegie made several trips a year to Paris. She returned with many examples of Paris' latest fashions and blended French style with comfort, a combination that matched the taste of many fashion-conscious Americans. Carnegie's designs were described in Who's Who in Fashion 1988 as "youthful and sophisticated, never faddy or extreme. She was noted for suits with nipped waists and rounded hips, especially becoming to smaller women, embroidered, beaded evening suits, at-home pajamas, long wool dinner dresses and theater suits. Beautiful fabrics and excellent workmanship were hallmarks, anything but the best was abhorrent to her."
Most Americans, however, were not able to afford Carnegie's original designer clothes. During the Depression, even many rich customers had problems paying their bills. In 1932, her corporation filed a famous lawsuit against New York mayor James J. Walker and his wife for $12,059, the balance due on a $20,059 bill. Adapting to the new market situation, Carnegie launched a less expensive ready-to-wear line, which she first sold in her New York retail shop. Eventually, she introduced a new wholesale line, Spectator Sports, with ready-to-wear copies of Carnegie clothes sold for as little as $50 a piece.
In order to make her modestly priced clothes more available to the average consumer, she decided to break from her practice of selling her clothes exclusively at her own shop. However, only one department store in a city was able to buy her creations. Thus, she avoided becoming her own competition and, at the same time, preserved the exclusiveness of Carnegie products. Inspired by the Parisian houses of haute couture, Hattie Carnegie showed her collections to customers four times a year at her wholesale department at 711 Fifth Avenue. The wholesale branch of her business soon became the most profitable one.
By the 1940s, Carnegie oversaw a multi-million dollar business and had established herself as one of the country's top designers. Society beauties as well as famous actresses who wore her clothes in their films were on her customer list. Hattie Carnegie's firm consisted of the retail shop in New York, two resort shops, two wholesale businesses, and several factories. As her business grew, she added accessories, perfumes, chiffon handkerchiefs, silk hose, and a line of cosmetics, competing with products by Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein.
Hattie Carnegie did not believe in the cult of personality that dominated much of the high-fashion world. She did not care for personal publicity, and believed that no single individual was crucial to the success of her business. Once her head designer, hoping to strike out on his own, left with her entire collection. Within three weeks she had designed and produced a whole new collection for the new season. A collection usually consisted of 100-150 models.
Carnegie spent long hours doing the work she loved, but, as stated in Notable American Women, "disliked shop talk and avoided associating with business people. She made no attempt to educate women to fashion, resented ugly customers, and hated fashion lunches, newspaperwomen, and fashion experts. Preferring her employees to be stylish, good looking, and blonde, she was fiercely loyal to those she liked."
By the time of her death in 1956, Carnegie's business was worth over $8 million.
Social and Economic Impact
Her ideas of simple, beautiful clothes which enhance, but do not overpower the woman who wears them, made Hattie Carnegie one of the most famous and influential fashion designers of her time in the United States. Her creations were widely copied by the designers of popular-priced clothes and, therefore, had an influence over haute couture as well as popular wear.
The "little Carnegie suit" was a basic item in a woman's wardrobe. She later modified it for the U.S. Army's Women's Army Corps uniform. She also created a modernized habit for the Carmelite nuns. Her film work included the clothes for Constance Bennett in the 1932 movie Two Against the World and for Joan Fontaine in the film Born To Be Bad in 1950.
Carnegie's booming firm drew young designers throughout the 1930s, and she showed a great feeling for discovering talent, and trained a generation of fashion designers that determined American style for decades. Among others, Norman Norell, Claire McCardell, Paula Trigere, Pauline De Rothschild, James Galanos, and Jean Louis, learned their craft under her tutelage.
According to Who's Who in Fashion 1988, Hattie Carnegie is said to have been the first American custom designer with a ready-to-wear label. Introducing the practice of selling her creations for modest prices in department stores, she led the foundation of a million dollar fashion industry. In 1956, more than a thousand employees worked for her company.
Chronology: Hattie Carnegie
1909: First shop opened.
1913: Founded Corporation with Rose Roth.
1919: First buying trip to Paris.
1930s: Introduced first wholesale line Spectator Sports.
1932: Filed lawsuit against New York mayor James L. Walker.
1940: Established as top designer in the United States.
1956: Hattie Carnegie Inc. had over 1000 employees.
Hattie Carnegie proved to be able to design clothes without being able to sketch, cut, or sew-by explaining her ideas to the people who set them into practice. She also showed that women could not only dress women, but also had all it took to succeed as business leaders.
Sources of Information
Bauer, Hambla. "Hot Fashions by Hattie." Collier's. 16 April 1949.
Bondi, Victor, ed. American Decades 1930-1939. Detroit: Gale Research, 1995.
Current Biography Yearbook. "1942." New York: H.W. Wilson Co., 1942.
Leavitt, Judith A. American Women Managers and Administrators. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985.
Maloney, Russell. "Hattie Carnegie." Life, 12 November 1945.
"Profiles: Luxury, Inc." New Yorker, 31 March 1934.
Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women, The Modern Period. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 1980.
Stegemeyer, Anne. Who's Who in Fashion. New York: Fairchild Publications, 1988.
Born: Henrietta Kanengeiser in Vienna, 1889. Family: Married third husband, John Zanft, in 1928. Career: Left school at age 11 and moved with parents to New York, 1900; established as Carnegie-Ladies Hatter, 1909; opened custom dressmaking salon, 1918; offered Paris models after first buying trip to Europe, 1919; opened East 49th Street building to sell own label, imports, and millinery, 1925; added ready-to-wear, 1928; Hattie Carnegie Originals carried in stores throughout the U.S. by 1934; custom salon closed, 1965. Awards: Neiman Marcus award, 1939; Coty American Fashion Critics award, 1948. Died: 22 February 1956, in New York.
Epstein, Beryl Williams, Fashion is Our Business, Philadelphia and New York, 1945.
New York and Hollywood Fashion: Costume Designs from the Brooklyn Museum Collection, New York, 1986.
Milbank, Caroline Rennolds, New York Fashion: The Evolution of American Style, New York, 1989.
Steele, Valerie, Women of Fashion: Twentieth Century Design, NewYork, 1991.
Stegemeyer, Anne, Who's Who in Fashion, Third Edition, New York,1996.
"Luxury, Inc.," in Vogue (New York), 15 April 1928.
"Profiles: Luxury, Inc.," in the New Yorker, 31 March 1934.
"Hattie Carnegie," in Current Biography (New York), October 1942.
Bauer, Hambla, "Hot Fashions by Hattie," in Collier's (Philadelphia),16 April 1949.
"Hattie Carnegie" (obituary), in the New York Times, 23 February 1956.***
For decades Hattie Carnegie's personal taste and fashion sense influenced the styles worn by countless American women. Whether they bought her imported Paris models, the custom designs, the ready-to-wear collections, or the mass market copies of her work, women welcomed Carnegie's discreet good taste as a guarantee of sophistication and propriety. Carnegie's business ability and fashion acumen enabled her to build a small millinery shop into a wholesale and retail clothing and accessory empire and made her name synonymous with American high fashion for almost half a century.
Carnegie's place in fashion history was assured not because of her own designs, but because of her talent for choosing or refining the designs of others. Between the World Wars, the list of couturiers whose models she imported included Lanvin, Vionnet, Molyneux, and Mainbocher—classic stylists—but also select creations for Chanel and Patou, Schiaparelli, and Charles James. In fact, Carnegie claimed in an April 1949 Collier's article to have had a three-year unauthorized exclusive on selling Vionnet models in the early 1920s, a few years before Vionnet started selling "to the trade."
The Custom Salon was generally considered to be the heart of the Hattie Carnegie operation, since it was with made-to-order fashion that Carnegie began. The focus of her business was to interpret European style for American consumers, but the sense of dress she chose to champion was not contained in the minutiae of design. It was instead an approach to fashion that emphasized consummate polish in every outfit. Norman Norell, who was with Carnegie from 1928 to 1940 (primarily as a ready-to-wear designer), remarked in American Fashion (New York, 1975) that he often worked from models that Miss Carnegie had brought back from Paris. He could legitimately claim, however, that he had imprinted his own signature on his designs for the firm, and it is often possible to make an informed attribution of Hattie Carnegie styles to her other designers. Certainly one gown featured in a 1939 magazine layout is recognizably the work of Claire McCardell, who spent two years with the firm. Others who worked for Carnegie were Emmett Joyce, Travis Banton, Pauline Trigére, Jean Louis, James Galanos, and Gustave Tassell.
Carnegie was already established as a taste-maker by the time she added the ready-to-wear division to her company in the 1920s. "Vogue points from Hattie Carnegie" contained her style tips and forecasts for Vogue readers. At the Hattie Carnegie salon, a customer could accessorize her day and evening ensembles with furs, hats, handbags, gloves, lingerie, jewelry, and even cosmetics and perfume— everything, in fact—but shoes.
The Carnegie customer, whatever her age, seems to have been neither girlish nor matronly, but possessed of a certain decorousness. Even the casual clothing in the Spectator Sportswear and Jeunes Filles ready-to-wear departments was elegant rather than playful. The Carnegie Suit, usually an ensemble with dressmaker details in luxury fabrics, traditionally opened her seasonal showings. She often stressed the importance of black as a wardrobe basic, both for day and evening, but was also famous for a shade known as "Carnegie blue." Perhaps Carnegie's preference for 18th-century furnishings in her home relates to the devotion of formality so clearly expressed in her business.
During World War II Carnegie was an impressive bearer of the standard of the haute couture. French style leadership was unavailable, and designs from her custom salon took pride of place in fashion magazines and on the stage, as in the original production of State of the Union by Lindsay and Crouse. Carnegie's leadership was also important to other fashion industries. She had always used fabrics from the best American textile companies, and continued to patronize specialty firms such as Hafner Associates and Onondaga Silks, which were not immersed in war work. She also used fabrics designed and hand-printed by Brook Cadwallader, and continued to do so after French materials again became available. Only after Carnegie's death did the company claim to use exclusively imported fabrics.
Hattie Carnegie died in 1956; the fashion empire she had built survived into the 1970s, but in 1965 the custom salon was closed and the company concentrated on wholesale businesses. The informal youth culture of the 1960s and 1970s was ill-suited to the type of clothing and client that had made Hattie Carnegie's reputation. The strength of her personal identification with the company made it difficult for it to succeed without her, and it quickly lost ground to the younger desginers who emerged in the 1960s.
Hattie Carnegie (1889-1956) was a prominent fashion dress designer in the United States during the 1930s.
Hattie Carnegie, born Henrietta Kanengeiser in Vienna in 1889, was one of the premier dress designers of the 1930s. Not only did she make her mark through her elegant designs, she also trained a generation of fashion designers that shaped American style for decades. Carnegie started her career as a milliner. Her father, an artist and designer, introduced her to the world of fashion and design, and by age fifteen she had found work trimming hats. Five years later she opened a shop on East Tenth Street in New York called Carnegie—Ladies Hatter. The shop was successful, and within a few years she moved to the tony Upper West Side, where she took up dress design. However, she never learned to sew. A friend explained that "Hattie couldn't sew a fine seam, but she had a feeling about clothes and a personality to convey her ideas to the people who were to work them out." She changed the name of her business in 1914 to Hattie Carnegie, Inc., and by the 1920s was the toast of the fashion world from her new location in the Upper East Side.
"Simple, Beautiful Clothes"
Carnegie's belief in simplicity fit perfectly with the streamlining of 1930s design. She believed that "simple, beautiful clothes … enhance the charm of the woman who wears them. If you have a dress that is too often admired, be suspicious of it." The dress, she insisted, must fit and not overpower the woman who wears it. She was unabashedly devoted to Paris fashion and made regular buying trips throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Yet while she was a self-declared Francophile, she adapted French style to American tastes by offering a blend of style and comfort that suited many fashion-conscious Americans who still wanted their clothes to have a French flair.
Designing for the Middle Class
Carnegie's expensive original designer clothes were out of reach for many Americans, but this did not limit her influence on American design. Hers were among some of the most widely copied designs by popularly priced designers. As the decade wore on, Carnegie added a modestly priced, ready-to-wear line of clothing that proved to be the most lucrative of her enterprises. She made her modestly priced clothes more available to the average consumer by permitting some department stores to carry the new line, breaking from her usual practice of selling her clothes at her own shop. This practice secured her influence over both haute couture and popular wear.
Training a New Generation
Throughout the 1930s Carnegie's booming business attracted several young designers who trained under her. Norman Norell, Claire McCardell, Paula Trigére, Pauline De Rothschild, and Jean Louis, among others, spent years working under her tutelage. As her business grew, so did her interests. She added accessories, perfumes, chiffon handkerchiefs, silk hose, and cosmetics. By the 1940s Carnegie was well established as one of America's top designers.
L. H., "Profiles: Luxury, Inc.," New Yorker, 10 (31 March 1934): 23-27.
Caroline Rennolds Milbank, New York Fashion: The Evolution of American Style (New York: Abrams, 1989). □
CARNEGIE, HATTIE (1886–1956), U.S. milliner, fashion designer, manufacturer. The second of seven children, Henrietta Kanengeiser was born in Vienna and immigrated with her family to Manhattan's Lower East Side at the turn of the 20th century. Although she started out as a messenger girl at Macy's, owning only one skirt and a couple of blouses, her sense of style and business savvy led her to set standards for fashion for over a generation and she left an estate of $8 million upon her death at the age of 69. She started in the fashion business in 1909 when she and a seamstress, Miss Roth, opened a shop on East Tenth Street. Roth made dresses and Henrietta, who made the hats, changed her name to Hattie Carnegie, taking the last name of the steel magnate, Andrew Carnegie. In 1919, following a business dispute, Carnegie bought out her partner and Roth & Carnegie, Inc. became Hattie Carnegie, Inc. Between 1919 and 1939, Carnegie made more than seven buying trips to Paris each year, bringing back samples to restyle as custom dresses for sale at her exclusive shop. Carnegie, who is credited with training many U.S. dress designers, including John Louis, Bruno, and Norman Norell, located her offices in a building on Fifth Avenue that also housed her wholesale business, where she created and sold models of her designer dresses to manufacturers for reproduction and sale in major department stores. In addition to selling dresses, she had a millinery shop and jewelry, perfume, and cosmetics factories. After two unsuccessful marriages, Carnegie embarked in 1928 on a long-lasting union with John Zanft, vice president of the William Fox Circuit of Theaters and a childhood friend. Carnegie's fashions were often cited for excellence of design as when New York City Mayor O'Dwyer presented her with a trophy at the sixth annual American Fashion Critics Ceremony at Gracie Mansion in 1948. The award was given for "her distinguished contribution to the long range development of good taste in dress in America" (New York Times). She died after a long illness.
[Sara Alpern (2nd ed.)]