Born: Norman David Levinson in Noblesville, Indiana, 20 April 1900. Education: Studied illustration at Parsons School of Design, New York, 1919; fashion design at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, New York, 1920-22. Career: Costume designer, Paramount Pictures, Long Island, New York, 1922-23; theatrical costume designer, 1924-28; designer, Hattie Carnegie, New York, 1928-40; partner/designer, Traina-Norell company, New York, 1941-60; director, Norman Norell, New York, 1960-72. Exhibitions: Norman Norell retrospective, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1972. Awards: Neiman Marcus award, Dallas, Texas, 1942; Coty American Fashion Critics award, 1943, 1951, 1956, 1958, 1966; Parsons medal for distinguished achievement, 1956; Sunday Times International Fashion award, London, 1963; City of New York Bronze Medallion, 1972. Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts, Pratt Institute, 1962. Died: 25 October 1972, in New York.
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Simple, well-made clothes that would last and remain fashionable for many years became the hallmark of Norman Norell, the first American designer to win the respect of Parisian couturiers. He gained a reputation for flattering design while Traina, whose well-heeled clientéle appreciated the snob appeal of pared-down day clothes and dramatic eveningwear. From his early years with Hattie Carnegie, Norell learned all about meticulous cut, fit, and quality fabrics. Regular trips to Paris exposed him to the standards of couture that made French clothes the epitome of high fashion. Norell had the unique ability to translate the characteristics of couture into American ready-to-wear. He did inspect each model garment individually, carefully, in the tradition of a couturier, and was just as demanding in proper fabrication and finish. The prices of "Norells," especially after he went into business on his own, easily rivaled those of Paris creations, but they were worth it. The clothes lasted, and their classicism made them timeless.
Certain characteristics of Norell's designs were developed early on and remained constant throughout his career. Wool jersey shirtwaist dresses with demure bowed collars were a radical departure from splashy floral daydresses of the 1940s. World War II restrictions on yardages and materials coincided with Norell's penchant for spare silhouettes, echoing his favorite period, the 1920s. Long before Paris was promoting the chemise in the 1950s, Norell was offering short, straight, low-waisted shapes during the war years. For evening, Norell looked to the flashy glamor of his days designing costumes for vaudeville.
Glittering paillettes, which were not rationed, would be splashed on evening skirts—paired with sweater tops for comfort in unheated rooms—or on coats. Later, the lavish use of all-out glamor sequins evolved into Norell's signature shimmering "mermaid" evening dresses, formfitting, round-necked and short-sleeved. The round neckline, plain instead of the then-popular draped, became one of the features of Norell's designs of which he was most proud. "I hope I have helped women dress more simply," was his goal. He used revealing bathing suit necklines for evening as well, with sable trim or jeweled buttons for contrast. Variations on these themes continued throughout the years, even after trousersuits became a regular part of Norell's repertoire.
Striking in their simplicity, Norell suits would skim the body, making the wearer the focus of attention rather than the clothes. Daytime drama came from bold, clear colors such as red, black, beige, bright orange, or pale blue, punctuated by large, plain contrasting buttons. Stripes, dots, and checks were the only patterns, although Norell was credited with introducing leopard prints in the 1940s, again, years before they became widespread in use. Norell's faithful clients hailed his clothes as some of the most comfortable they had ever worn.
Early exposure to men's clothing in Norell's father's haberdashery business no doubt led to the adaptation of the menswear practicality. An outstanding example was the sleeveless jacket over a bowed blouse and slim woolen skirt, developed after Norell became aware of the comfort of his own sleeveless vest worn for work. As in men's clothing, pockets and buttons were always functional. Norell created a sensation with the culotte-skirted wool flannel day suit with which he launched his own independent label in 1960. His sophisticated clientéle welcomed the ease of movement allowed by this daring design. As the 1960s progressed Norell presented another masculine-influenced garment, the jumpsuit, but in soft or luxurious fabrics for evening. Just as durability and excellent workmanship were integral to the best menswear, so they were to Norell's. Men's dress was traditionally slow to change; Norell stayed with his same basic designs, continually refining them over the years. He developed the idea that there should be only one center of interest in an outfit, and designed only what he liked.
What he liked was frequently copied, both domestically and overseas. The short, flippy, gored, ice skating skirt was copied by Paris. Aware of piracy in the fashion business, Norell offered working sketches of the culotte suit free of charge to the trade to ensure that at least his design would be copied correctly. This integrity earned him a place as the foremost American designer of his time. Unlike most ready-to-wear that would be altered at the last moment for ease of manufacture, no changes were allowed after Norell had approved a garment. His impeccable taste was evident not only in the clothes, but in his simple life: meals at Schrafft's and Hamburger Heaven, quiet evenings at home, sketching in his modern duplex apartment, and unpublicized daily visits to assist fashion design students at Parsons School of Design.
As the designer whose reputation gained new respect for the Seventh Avenue garment industry, Norell was the first designer to receive the Coty Award, and the first to be elected to the Coty Award Hall of Fame. True to his innate integrity, he attempted to return his third Winnie award when he learned that judging was done without judges having actually seen designers' collections. Norell promoted American fashion as founder and president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, but also by giving fledgling milliners their start in his black-tie, special event fashion shows. Halston and Adolfo designed hats for Norell, for, as in couture, Norell insisted upon unity of costume to include accessories.
As the "Dean of American Fashion," Norell was the first to have his name on a dress label, and the first to produce a successful American fragrance, Norell, with a designer name. Some of his clothes can be seen in the films, such as The Sainted Devil, That Touch of Mink and The Wheeler Dealers. Show business personalities and social leaders throughout the country treasured their "Norells" for years.
—Therese Duzinkiewicz Baker
The work of Norman Norell belongs within the exciting forefront of American fashion. From his first Traina-Norell collection in 1941 to the designer's death in 1972, Norell worked within a design vocabulary that presented his vision of the well-heeled American woman. While other American designers such as Claire McCardell presented an American sensibility primarily by redefining sportswear, Norell took a different approach in his career. He is credited with appropriating the quality and workmanship of French couture and applying these features to clothes produced on Seventh Avenue. Norell put an American twist on his highly sophisticated suits and dresses by adding polka dots, sailor collars, and schoolgirl bows. Fashion reports during Norell's career often claim that as an American designer Norell created certain styles, such as culottes and high-waisted dresses, ahead of his French contemporaries. Norell was a masterful fashion designer who used Seventh Avenue as the unlikely venue for his precisely made and wildly expensive clothes.
Norell was born Norman David Levinson, in Noblesville, Indiana, on 20 April 1900, the son of Harry and Nettie Levinson. As a child his attention to fashion derived from his mother's style of dress and her collection of fashion magazines; his father's haberdashery store in Indianapolis; and his early interest in clothes, interiors, and the theater. At the age of eighteen Norell went to New York City to attend the Parsons School of Design. Whether Norell actually attended Parsons or not for the year he claimed (Parsons cannot find any record of his enrollment), Norell's relationship with the school developed with his success, and Parson's claimed Norell as one of its illustrious graduates. Following a year spent back in Indianapolis opening a batik shop, Norell returned to New York to study at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. At this time Norell created a new name for himself by combining the first syllable of his first name with the sound of the initial letter of his surname.
From his studies of fashion illustration, drawing, and painting, Norell eventually discovered his métier in fashion and costume design. After finishing his studies at Pratt, Norell held a progression of jobs. In 1922 he worked for the film industry in Astoria, Queens, designing costumes for Rudolph Valentino in The Sainted Devil and for Gloria Swanson in Zaza. His career in theatrical costume design continued with stints designing for the Ziegfeld Follies and the Greenwich Village Follies, and at Brooks Costume Company, where he created costumes for burlesque, vaudeville, and nightclub revues. Norell's shift to women's clothing occurred in 1924, when he was hired by Charles Armour, a manufacturer of women's apparel. During the years that Norell worked for Hattie Carnegie (1928–1940), he had the invaluable opportunities of traveling to Europe, studying the construction of French couture dresses, and working with Carnegie's glamorous clients. Following a disagreement with Hattie Carnegie over a dress for Gertrude Lawrence in Lady in the Dark, a Broadway production, Norell left the firm and joined Anthony Traina, owner of A. Traina Gowns. Norell is often quoted as saying, "Mr. Traina called me and asked me to join him. He offered me a larger salary if my name were not used, a smaller amount if it was" (Morris, p. 46). Norell chose recognition over financial gain. Name recognition also served Norell in 1968 when he launched his perfume, "Norell."
From its inception in 1941 to Traina's retirement in 1960, Traina-Norell produced dresses, suits, and evening wear that combined an up-to-date sensibility with a feeling of timelessness. The label of Traina-Norell was formed with Anthony Traina as businessman and Norell as his employee, solely responsible for the designs of the collections. Of the first Traina-Norell collection, Bonwit Teller declared in Vogue, "The House of Traina-Norell comes on the season like an electrical storm. Its designer, young Mr. Norell, creates a collection so alive that everyone's talking" (Vogue, 1 October 1941, p. 5). Women purchasing a Traina-Norell garment were buying, at great cost, an American-made status symbol that would likely remain in their closets for decades. The high-class status of a Traina-Norell dress is invoked in the 1957 film Sweet Smell of Success, a reference known to audiences of that time but likely lost on most viewers today.
During the heyday of Traina-Norell, Norell established the basic designs that carried him through his career. The designer's body-fitting, sequined gowns, known as "mermaid dresses," were first shown in the 1940s. His chic shirtwaists, suits and chemise dresses, beautifully tailored coats, and clothes featuring polka dots, white schoolgirl collars, and oversize bows all became signatures of Norell's style. A Harper's Bazaar caption (March 1951) to a Norell ensemble captures it well: "American Style—sharp and clean, a parlormaid's collar and cuffs of snowy organdie on a fitted jersey top, a snowy skirt, a streak of patent leather, and a red, red rose."
Following Traina's retirement in 1960, Norell opened his own firm, Norman Norell, New York. For its first collection Norell took his inspiration from the 1920s and his favorite designer, Chanel. Slinky, spangled evening dresses combined 1920s straight silhouettes with modern opulence. Also included in this premier collection was the wool culotte suit, considered revolutionary when it appeared. Vogue proclaimed (1 September 1960), "Now, for the first time in the history of modern fashion, a first-rank designer has based an entire suit-collection on the divided skirt" (p. 187).
Through the 1960s until his death in 1972, Norell continued to present elegant clothes of exemplary quality. His classics of sweater tops with evening skirts, chemise dresses, sequin-paved dresses and blouses, the sailor look in various guises, and ensembles mixing dressy satins with menswear flannel, had an ongoing prestige and allure that catered to his wealthy clientele.
Norell's talents were recognized in the early years of Traina-Norell. In 1943 he was the first designer to win the Coty American Fashion Critics' award; he won it again in 1951, and in 1956 was the first designer to earn a place in the Coty Hall of Fame. Norell was a founder and first president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 1965. His clothes have been featured in numerous exhibitions, most recently Norman Norell at the Fashion Institute of Technology (1998) and Architects of American Fashion: Norman Norell and Pauline Trigère at the Wadsworth Atheneum (2002). Norell suffered a stroke on 15 October 1972, only one day before his retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He died days later on 25 October 1972. A statement made by Norell in the early 1960s encapsulates the designer's career, "To qualify as a designer one should not be afraid to repeat a good design, and certainly must have his own signature" (Kellen Archive Center, Parsons School of Design, Alumni Scrapbook 5). Norell followed these maxims to great success.
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NORELL, NORMAN (1900–1972), U.S. fashion designer. Born Norman David Levinson in Noblesville, Indiana, the son of a haberdasher, Norell became the dean of American women's fashion designers in the 1950s and 1960s. At that time, he was the one American whose clothes were held to be the equal of anything created by the Paris couture. One of the first designers whose name appeared on a label, he was the first president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. After attending military school during World War i, Norell traveled to New York City and studied at the Parsons School of Design in 1918 and Pratt Institute from 1920 to 1922. He returned to Parsons as a teacher in the 1940s and continued mentoring design students there until the end of his life. In 1922 he was hired by the New York studio of Paramount Pictures to create clothes for Gloria Swanson and other stars of the silent screen. He also designed for Broadway shows, including the Ziegfeld Follies. In 1928, he was hired by Hattie *Carnegie, working with her until 1941, when he went into partnership with Anthony Traina to form Traina-Norell. Traina retired in 1960 and Norell formed his own company, Norman Norell Inc. He was known for making clothes with clean, precisely tailored silhouettes and superb workmanship. Breaking with tradition, he conducted his fashion shows for visiting buyers in the evening instead of during the working day – and in front of a black-tie audience. In 1943 he received the first of five Coty Awards for Fashion. In 1956, the same year Parsons gave him its Medal for Distinguished Achievement, he was inducted into the Coty Hall of Fame. He died in October 1972, suffering a stroke on the night before the opening of a retrospective of his work at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 2000, when New York's fashion industry paid tribute to its top designers by installing bronze plaques on Seventh Avenue, the heart of the garment district, Norell was among the first to be so honored.
[Mort Sheinman (2nd ed.)]