Still very much in fashion

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Grand Central Terminal and its neighbor for over 90 years, the Chrysler Building. Photo: JH.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020. Grey and rainy days here in New York. 53 degrees last night at 10 pm. What’d Ole Man Winter retire? Some icy times said to be down the road.

This is Fashion Week in New York. Which brings to mind a book I’ve been reading (and even more than that, looking at); Amy Fine Collins’ The International Best Dressed List: The Official Story (Rizzoli). And as far as “full story,” it’s encyclopedic, full of the details of the individuals as well as hundreds of fabulous photographs of the figures, many of whom are now historical. This is a book you can’t read at once, although you’ll have a hard time putting it down once you get started. It’s a coffee table book, and a treasure, a feast in terms of memories, fashion, faces, eras, and the trends that we call life.

Click to order The International Best Dressed List: The Official Story, by Amy Fine Collins.

Like the transformation over the last eight decades of the Garment Business into a multi-billion dollar industry, and “The Best Dressed List,” it all recalls the woman who was very much its mother and creator: Eleanor Lambert. 

A little girl (5’2”) from Crawfordsville, Indiana, came to the Big Town in 1925. She got a job in an advertising agency, although her original ambition for which she studied was to be a sculptor. By the early 1930s she was in the publicity business, firstly with getting press mentions in the New York Press for art galleries. This led to many other kinds of prospects  for her including the garment business. 

In 1940, when the World War II was raging in Europe, the Paris fashion business was stymied and lost a lot of business, Eleanor saw a important opportunity. There had been a best-dressed list, a poll in Paris for years. It was a measure of the industry as well as the designer and the customer. The war stopped its requisite. Eleanor saw a “Best-dressed List” as an opportunity to assist the American manufacturers, as well as the Parisians. 

The first list was announced to the public on December 27, 1940.  Collins writes: “In one swift stroke Lambert had not only redrawn the map of fashion with Manhattan as its capital, but also composed a roll call as all-American as the nation’s armed forces. American is a huge country full of well-dressed women. The Paris designers spoke for Paris alone, while we must speak for the world.”

The First List, 1940:

• Mona (Mrs. Harrison) Williams (later Countess Bismarck).

• Mrs. Ronald Balcom, Millicent Rogers, “the haute bohemian, physically frail Standard Oil heiress with a penchant for folklore and historical clothing mixed with (or designed by) Mainbocher, Schiaparelli, Valentina and Charles James.

• Mrs. Thomas Shevlin.

Mona Williams Bismarck in gown. © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

• Mrs. Thelma Foy, daughter of Walter Chrysler. “For Bill Cunningham, Thelma ‘was the most chic woman in New York’ with ball gowns so spectacular they would make any other dress ‘look like a rag.’”

• Countess Haugwitz-Reventlow; Barbara Hutton.

• Dorothy (Mrs. William) Paley, previously first married to a son of William Randolph Hearst, wife of CBS founder William Paley.

• Mrs. Howard Linn, the former Lucy Blair McCormick of the Chicago McCormicks. “Later in life she donated 150 couture pieces to the Chicago History Museum.

• Gladys Swarthout, “glamorous mezzo soprano … star of opera, film and radio.”

Babe Paley. Getty Images/Erwin Blumenfeld/Conde Nast
Twiggy. Getty Images/Justin de Villeneuve

• Ina Claire, sophisticated comedienne, star of the stage, screen and radio.

• Mrs. Gilbert Miller, Kitty, eldest daughter of Wall Street Banker and art collector Jules Bache, and wife of Broadway and London stage producer, Gilbert Miller.

• Mrs. Lawrence Tibbett, “a banker’s daughter and the wife of baritone movie and stage entertainer, Lawrence Tibbett.”

• Lynn Fontanne, star of stage with longtime performing partner, Alfred Lunt. “She favored ethereal draped and floating looks by Valentina.”

The Begum and Aga Khan. Robert Rider/A.P. Images

• Mrs. S. Kent Legere, a leading Washington hostess.

• Mrs. Harold Talbott, “Born Margaret ‘Peggy’ Thayer on the Main Line, she was the big-game hunting, equestrienne deb daughter of a Titanic survivor. Married to a sometimes shady aeronautics pioneer and U.S. Air Force secretary, she later threw herself from the 12th story of her Fifth Avenue apartment building. 

• Mrs. William Rhinelander Stewart, Janet, was in her day regarded as the most beautiful woman in New York. She was famous for her thriftiness when it came to spending on clothes. Her daughter Serena once complimented her mother on a dress she was wearing, to which mother replied, “$2.98 at Macy’s.” And she wasn’t kidding. Later in life when she was widowed, her husband’s friend Vincent Astor came to her and proposed because his wife Minnie was leaving. “Marry you?” she is said to reply, “but I don’t even like you.” But, Mr. Astor assured her, he was not in good health and probably wouldn’t live that long and she’d inherit his millions. “But what if you do live that long?” she couldn’t help asking. He moved on to Brooke Marshall.

C. Z. Guest. Getty Images/Cecil Beaton/Conde Nast

I was originally interested in this book because in the late 1990s, I was on the committee of the BDL, asked by the founder herself who still ran it. I’d heard of the List since I was a very young person. It was well known in popular culture in America, usually in relation to a Hollywood star or a Society woman. 

In the 1930s and ’40s, the industry was a group of manufacturers of all kinds of garments for the working masses. They marketed through clothing and department stores and catalogues. Many American women followed “fashion” through the pattern-makers such as Vogue and Simplicity. I have a family photo album from the 1930s in which my mother and her three sisters, then all in their twenties and working girls, were Sunday “dressed” in “designer” clothes that they made themselves using the patterns. All America had sewing machines. 

President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. © Steve Shapiro

Until the late 1950s, early ’60s, there were very few “name” designers. There were a few “fashion designers” for the more expensive goods purchased by the affluent customers such as Norman Norell, Charles James, Mainbocher. For that customer, Paris was still the center of the world. The better department stores such as Bergdorf Goodman would buy from Paris, receiving the muslins of each design, and manufacture them here. Halston, then still Roy Halston, a young milliner at Bergdorf’s, was fascinated by the muslins. They were to become a big part of his design education.

Eleanor Lambert and Amy Fine Collins at the memorial party for Horst at the Lotos Club, New York. January 27, 2000. Eisenstaedt/pix

“Designer” fashions didn’t become a major market of its own until the 1960s. One of the most successful in the beginning was Anne Klein, who started her own company. She was designing seasonal lines of women’s “designer sportswear” — jackets, pants, sweaters, blouses pieces that could be moved around. This was “expensive” daytime wear, and with a classic style — sporty but dressy. This was when it became fashionable for women to wear pants in public and at formal events and restaurants.

Anne Klein became a great success, and also three or four years into it, contracted cancer. Her last name was finished by her assistant at the time, Donna Karan, who succeeded her boss as head designer before she was backed with her own line.

“The International Best-Dressed List; The Official Story” beautifully demonstrates the profound value of Eleanor Lambert’s Best-Dressed list. Not only is it full of the American history of the century up to today, but there is the aforementioned treasure of the images of them all by some of the greatest fashion photographers of the time. Mrs. Lambert’s idea was a brilliant public relations device that not only followed, but enhanced the enormous development of the industry. 

She worked all her life at her profession. If she had an idea for a writer, she’d personally call on the phone and make a lunch date to discuss. The last time I saw her, was at Swifty’s restaurant in the summer of 2003. She had just celebrated her 100th birthday a week before (August 10th), and was waiting for her lunch guest (business, of course). Still keeping a work schedule, she stopped two and a half months later when she died on October 7th of that year.

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