By the 1920s and 1930s there were thousands of fashion businesses in New York, many of them run by women. I’ve been spending my time in the library (in addition to making my, now usual, pilgrimages to Brooklyn Museum) and have been reading lots and lots including the excellent, New York Fashion (1989: 100) by Caroline Milbank. In it, Milbank notes that “America’s first real crop of designers was predominantly female”. During the Thirties, what were traditionally referred to as the ‘needle trades’ were undergoing a repositioning in the American public consciousness so that dressmaking was no longer looked down upon as a humble craft but had become a popular, and acceptable, choice of career for young, ambitious, modern, middle-class women. Fashion design at the highest level allowed a clutch of talented American women – such as Muriel King, Nettie Rosenstein, Hattie Carnegie and Clare McCardell – to create and make clothing but also to be successful as business leaders, heading up their design houses and running commercial fashion enterprises (albeit often in association with a male partner or husband).
Elizabeth Hawes sat centrally amidst this collection of contemporary fashion owner-operators. At least, she did – and she didn’t. As I’ve come to understand, Hawes was something of an enigma who tended to defy neat theorising. Valerie Steele (2000: 188) alludes to this, writing, “Elizabeth Hawes was a more unusual candidate for fashion design”, and whereas her peer, Muriel King, was being described by Vogue (1933) as “a sort of tawny goddess” and embodying the very essence of the sporty, long-legged American female for which she designed, Elizabeth Hawes attracted descriptors such as ‘practical’, ‘feline’, ‘tiny’, ‘energetic’, and also ‘cantankerous’. This point is borne out in a magazine article from Look of July 4th, 1939. A four-page spread is titled ‘Hattie Carnegie Vs Elizabeth Hawes’ and continues ‘Hattie Carnegie, She Emphasizes Femininity. Elizabeth Hawes…She Emphasizes Comfort’. Whatever the media perception, Liz was, nonetheless, among a cohort of designers who emerged as celebrities at this time (a term that I have wrestled with, and avoided, using but that I think ultimately best describes her status by the late 1930s). By way of evidencing this celebrity (there’s that term again), I refer to the several examples of product endorsement (or association) that the archives have thrown up in recent days, apricot brandy included. Wrigley’s gum, Chrysler cars, Lucky Strike and also Camel (to which my obtusely-titled blog entry alludes) cigarettes. Drinking, chewing, speeding, smoking. Together, this selection of products provides an intriguing, nuanced, unorthodox ‘take’ on femininity, the gendering of consumer products and the discourses spun around them by marketers and advertising. These endorsements suggest that Hawes brought a certain frisson to her celebrity. But, by now, we all could have guessed as much.