A Short History of 20th Century Fashion in America, Part II

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A fashionable moment in Union Square. Photo: JH.

Wednesday, 3_13 _24. It all turned out to be a beautiful late Winter/almost Springtime day in New York with the temps reaching up to the low 60s, and lots of Sun.

Today, we’re running the second part to my little 20th century analysis of Fashion in America (the US). The whys and hows and who we are from this spectator’s point of view. We’re all a solid part of it, believe it or not …

American fashion in the prosperous world of the 20th century came to the public via the silent movies. Before its prominence in the beginning of the 1920s, there was no fashion industry. By the 1930s and through the 1940s, style was introduced to the world by the Hollywood designers because everyone went to the movies; twice the population in numbers weekly.

Joan Crawford wearing the famous “Letty Lynton” dress in 1932, designed by Adrian. Besides being ripped off by designers here, there, and everywhere (including Paris!), Macy’s, who carried film-inspired fashion, sold tens of thousands of copies of this dress.

By the 1950s, after the Second World War was over, there was a fresh sense of prosperity that expanded in the post-War years when the world in and of the United States was prosperous and expanding.

Bill Blass, for example, got started in the garment business as the designer for the label Maurice Rentner. Mr. Rentner owned the business and owned its designer. Women’s Wear Daily began a “social” column which varied in size from a paragraph to at times a whole page, with photos of people at social parties or events, from a cocktail, to a store opening, to a charity ball. 

Now they were becoming the first generation of designers becoming household names known by their own labels rather than affiliation with a backer who financed them, or a department store which sold their goods. Welcome to the era of the celebrity in business.

Taking hold of the business by the 1960s were such prominent names in American fashion such as Norman Norell, Kasper, Molly Parnis,  Anne Klein, Halston, Luis Estevez, Pauline Trigere, Chester Weinberg, Carolina Herrera Donna Karan, Norma Kamali, Vera Wang, Valentino, Geoffrey Beene, Calvin Klein, Mary Quant, Oscar de la Renta, Adolfo, Diane von Furstenberg, John Anthony, Ralph Lauren, Betsy Johnson, Clovis Ruffin, Jimmy Galanos, to name only a few. 

Raising their public image also raised their private images. No longer the “dressmaker” in the backroom, they became socially sought after, celebrities in public, lauded guests at the best dinner tables in private. Those who were interested in expanding their own social lives, in the words of Luis Estevez, “designed for the masses and dined with the classes.

Luis Estévez talking fashion with First Lady Betty Ford in the White House, 1975. Luis created many original pieces for Ford, which were publicly worn at many formal events.

The photos WWD published had a personal feeling to them; not always flattering but having caught the flavor and style and looks of those photographed. Bill Cunningham was one of the first, if not the first, to cover those parties. John Fairchild’s fingerprints were on the copy. He occasionally, but always noticeably, left his mark, which was not always kind, never pandering, and not infrequently tweaking a personality. 

The successful result of those tweakings were “feuds” that he created between himself (WWD) and an individual – usually a designer with whom he had some kind of disagreement. At times, however, he’d go after a private individual.

“Dancing Chic to Sheik” column by Bill Cunningham for WWD, September 16, 1975.

For example, there was a man named Jerry Zipkin, a social character, a wealthy New York real estate heir who was devoted to his social life and the society matrons he often escorted. He was known for his generous gifts to friends, his wide social connections, his bitchy wit, and his sharp outspoken tongue with those he disliked for one reason or another.  

Jerry Zipkin, or “The Social Moth” as John Fairchild sometimes refer to him, with Betsy Bloomingdale (Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

A close friend of Betsy Bloomingdale, Zipkin was often seen with her when she was in town (she lived in Los Angeles), and often photographed with her in Eye in WWD. Under Fairchild’s direction, captions for Zipkin’s photographs began referring to him not by name but as “The Walker.” The name gave the word another meaning, as intended, that became commonly substituted to refer to a gay man who was often seen with a married woman of social standing.

This both amused his acquaintances and detractors, and intimidated Zipkin who had no recourse but to accept it. Eventually when the term became too ordinary and familiar, WWD took to referring to Zipkin as “The Social Moth” instead. This insult was amusing enough to people in the know until the Eye started referring his friend Mrs. Bloomingdale in pictures with him as “Mrs. Moth.”

Mrs. Bloomingdale was very upset by this designation but also intimidated by Fairchild’s media power. Unable or unwilling to confront Fairchild himself, she called upon her friend Luis Estevez who enjoyed an uncontroversial relationship with the editor/publisher to persuade him to leave her out of the “joke.” And so it was.

The great success of Women’s Wear was affirmed by the mainstream dailies who picked up on the subjects and people whose names appeared in the paper. Those fashionable ladies who also loved the personal (and favorable) publicity shed on them began to find themselves in the front rows of the shows of the designers’ collections as well as the subject of fashion articles in the newspapers and magazines.

Among the ladies of that time whose public image benefitted the most from this rise of the fashion designers’ world were socialites who had a personal interest in fashion such as Babe Paley, Gloria Guinness, Marella Agnelli, Mona von Bismarck, Deeda Blair, Evangeline Bruce, Pat Buckley, Nan Kempner, Robin Duke, Louise Grunwald, Anne Ford Johnson, Mary McFadden, Bunny Mellon, Merle Oberon, Judy Peabody, Lynn Wyatt, Jayne Wrightsman, Chessy Rayner, Anne Slater, Rosita Winston, Jacqueline de Ribes, Annette de la Renta, Helen Rochas, Aline de Romanones, Pauline Potter de Rothschild, Lee Radziwill, and of course, her sister Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who shocked the world when as a widow married the Greek shipowner Aristotle Onassis in 1968.

Ari and Jackie in Athens, Greece. July 28, 1969. Courtesy: CSU Archives/Everett Collection

Many were already well known in the world of society but their familiarity to the public made some of them, particularly Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Babe Paley, fashion icons, giving additional heft (and sales) to the designers whom they patronized.

An item worn by either of woman could cause a sales panic. Mrs. Paley photographed leaving a luncheon with her husband, carrying an Hermes handbag with an Hermes scarf tied to its handle literally started an enormous boom in sales of both (very expensive) items, making them icons of contemporary fashion.

The 1960s was also a major turning point in the world as well as in the world of fashion. The optimism and excitement of the new decade darkened substantially after the assassination of John Kennedy in 1963. It was followed by the continued rising of the Civil Rights Movement, with the rise and influence of the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; and the escalation of the War in Vietnam, the Women’s Liberation Movement, and the Gay Liberation Movement, as well as The Beatles’ arrival in America with their long hair and Carnaby Street fashion style. Change became a staple.

Harry Benson’s iconic photo of The Beatles arriving in America for the first time in 1964.

Men began to follow the Fab Four’s style, growing their hair long and burning their draft cards in rebellion against the War in Vietnam. Women began burning their bras en masse in public to protest for equal rights. The short (to the knee) skirt which had its debut in the 1920s as a reaction to the centuries of women covering up, had a huge revival, even shorter (the mini), and, like the liberation movements, had a profoundly lasting effect as a staple fashion choice. 

Harry Benson’s photograph of a campaign worker standing where Robert F. Kennedy fell at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5th 1968.

By the end of the decade of the ’60s, with the War in Vietnam continuing, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the national political atmosphere in transition brought the election of Richard Nixon to the Presidency. This was followed by the continuing protests against the war, and then Nixon’s Watergate scandal, which brought down his Administration. Change was everywhere. This was, predictably, reflected in the national attitude and in Fashion.

Fashion designers were now dealing with corporate empires. Conglomerates were acquiring designers’ businesses. Both Halston and Oscar de la Renta gave in to the stupendous offers, both of which turned out to be a disappointment to the designers. But nevertheless, it had become big business. 

In 1968, Anne Klein, who had been a designer for a manufacturer’s line called Junior Sophisticates, launched her own line backed by two Seventh Avenue investors, Gunther Oppenheim and Sandy Smith. Klein was the first designer after Coco Chanel to adapt men’s clothing styles in the way outfits were designed and produced for women – jackets, suits, shirts styled with a feminine touch. Women’s Lib had hit mainstream (and remains). It was called sportswear and Anne Klein soon became one of the most successful women’s designers in America, with her businesses grossing the then fantastic sums of $2 to $3 million a year.

Anne Klein and Company becomes a brand (in 1968). Her mission? To create elegant sportswear for the modern American woman and in the process changes how women think about and buy clothing. For her new label, Anne sketches a logo based on her astrological sign. The design goes on to become one of the most iconic and recognizable trademarks in the world.

Anne Klein died at age 50 in 1974 from breast cancer. Her assistant at the time, Donna Karan, took over as head designer of the firm. She was so successful with the line that the company’s founders backed her in her own business. In 2000, Karan sold her company to LVMH for $450 million. In 2016, LVMH sold the company for $650 million. Those figures reflects the enormous changes in the Fashion industry since the early 1960s. It grew, and grew into a multi-billion dollar market. Ralph Lauren’s company alone is a billion dollar business.

Fashion for men and women now has several profiles including unisex. The fashion objective remains the same for most of us of my generation but the market is wider in terms of choices, most of which reflect the changing lifestyles that have occurred over the past half century.

Donna Karan with her daughter Gabby soon after after Klein’s death in 1974. Karan was appointed head designer of the company at the age of 26.

Most of the fashion names and icons I’ve listed here have passed on to the greener pastures and with few exceptions are forgotten. Babe Paley and Jackie Onassis still stand out to those who can remember them or have been made familiar with them.

Babe Paley leaving her Upper East Side apartment, May 1966. Courtesy of WWD

Onassis is remembered for her glamour and her distinction as the wife of the late President. Paley is remembered for the artistry of her costume choices. Most women I know who even just saw her out in public (she died in 1978) can still remember exactly what she was wearing and how it impressed them so favorably.

But Fashion has changed dramatically with these times – which almost make the 1960s look calm and collected. Whereas it once indicated specific inclinations and socio-economic positions that separate people, the lines are now blurred almost, in some cases to the point of extinction.

The blue jean, for example, originally call dungarees, were originally made for men working at labor – on farms, in mining, construction, factories. Practical and durable and easy to clean with a wash. Today, there are women who are “fashionable” who pay as much as $300 or $400 for a pair of jeans that are status symbols because of the pre-sold large tears in the legs of the pants; the costume of poor people as worn by rich Hollywood stars.

A great many men and women now dress casually to the point where it looks like they don’t care how they look. If you go to the theatre in New York, or any public function, you see people dressed as casually (or carelessly) as if they have just finished cleaning their house or washing their car. There are many exceptions of course, but the fashion now is basically whatever turns you on. Or off.

What always fascinates this writer about Fashion is what it reflects and what it portends. It is a matter of the collective unconscious at work, which is simply an indication of where we are with ourselves, and with life. And what makes it most interesting is that it always leaves a great tale to tell, no matter who is wearing it.

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