The Final Cut

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Elizabeth Hawes, 1948

This is not ‘adieu’ but merely ‘au revoir’.  I am in the final week of my Stateside adventure and it is with a heavy heart that I will wave farewell to the Bard, to West 58th Street where I have set up camp, and to Manhattan.  How to sum up the past three months?  In words, there are superlatives: ‘amazing’, ‘thrilling’, ‘invigorating’, ‘fun’, ‘fruitful’, ‘challenging’, ‘surprising’, ‘productive’, ‘profound’.  In figures: a dozen seminars, two symposiums, two book launches, at least ten exhibitions, countless hours in the archive and some six hundred or so photographs, twenty blog entries and almost twelve thousand words of a journal article (but who’s counting?)

The Style Stakes Project will take a pause for breath while I get back up to speed with life in Manchester.  But the project will continue, or, more specifically, my research interests in the 1930s, Elizabeth Hawes, spectator dress and equestrian wear will run and run.  I have several, very interesting, irons in the fire (they call that a ‘teaser’ in the marketing world).  One project that has a definite shape is a return to the USA funded by the National Sporting Library & Museum, Virginia.  I am acting as Consulting Fellow to  its forthcoming Sidesaddle exhibition and will be giving a lecture on ‘Mad Caps and Mannequins: Equestrian Fashion in the NSL&M Collection’ as part of the symposium on 15th March 2014.  Do come along if you find yourself in the neighbourhood.  Another confirmed engagement is the symposium (yes, another!) at De Montfort University, Leicester, England, which will mark the launch of a special issue on fashion of the Sport In History journal, to which I have contributed an essay.  The symposium is slated for 31st October, 2014 and will be hosted by the International Centre for Sports History and Culture.

And so, until the next time, I think it is appropriate to end with some words from Elizabeth Hawes herself.  The final paragraph from her very own, Fashion is Spinach (1938: 336-7), provides a suitably colourful, memorable, flourish:

“The American woman has been laboring under an excess of fashion for only a few decades.  By and large she has shown herself able to cope with the exigencies of life as the need has arisen.  When she felt the time had come to vote, she saw to it that she was permitted.

Eventually she will look inside Fashion’s bright cellophane wrapper before she buys the contents.  She will seriously consider the quality and the usefulness of the very newest thing, the epitome of all chic, the height of all glamour.  She will settle comfortably back in an old sweater and skirt and idly remark to ninety percent of what she sees: I SAY TO HELL WITH IT.

Write Foot Forward

Serena

Wordplay and cryptic references were a signature of Hawes’s models. ‘Serena Blandish’ silk dress, Elizabeth Hawes, 1933. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC. Accession no: 2009.300.1036

The frequency of my blogging has slowed up just a little since the turn of the year.   This is because I am busy with another writing project – a journal article of epic proportions – and am racing towards a publication deadline.  I’d like to claim that beautiful, erudite prose falls effortlessly from my fingertips but the reality is something of a harder slog.  I thoroughly enjoy writing, and always have.  But, in contradiction, I also find it to be a mind bending and angst ridden process, and I even have to be scraped off the ceiling from time to time.

In more recent years, I have found that my job has involved a mentoring role and I have been helping (perhaps hindering?) others on their own academic writing odysseys. I find myself increasingly inhabiting the ‘there’s no great secret, you just have to sit down, shut up, and write’ camp.  That isn’t meant to be as harsh as it sounds: it is genuine, realistic, advice. Just one of the many grand resources out there for academic writers wanting less stark instruction may be found on the University of Durham’s website in the form of its ‘Writing Across Boundaries’ project.  Run by the Department of Anthropology the target audience is postgraduate students, and many excellent, inspirational and productive-sounding writing residentials are operated with thesis-writing in mind.  The section on the site called ‘Writing on Writing’ is also worth consultation.  Several high profile – and, most importantly, prolific – academics share their thoughts, secrets and demons.  If you’re short on time, head for the contribution by Professor Bryan S Turner on ‘How to Write Practically’.  He details his own writing regimen and how it succeeds in delivering 14,000 (yes, 14k) words for him per week.  I’ll have some of that!  Bring on the porridge (which he assures us is vital).

And what of Liz Hawes in all of this?  She was the most fantastic wordsmith, and one of the reasons I find her so alluring is due to her use of wordplay and punnery.  I have a penchant for the corny.  During my archive searches, I have enjoyed finding the puns (or, indeed, the more serious political commentaries) hidden in the names given to her models (‘models’, in this instance, being the contemporary term for garments).  There’s the ‘Wearwithall’ cape, for example.  As well as dresses named ‘Serena Blandish’, an outfit titled ‘Public Enemy No. 1’ and a skirt suit ensemble comprising ‘Would You Like to Take a Walk’ skirt and ‘Hug Me Tight’ jacket.  And so the list goes on.

My inkling is that Hawes, too, enjoyed writing. She certainly took every opportunity to practise the literary craft, and produced vast amounts during her career, ranging from her own advertising copy to books, cables, magazine articles and daily newspaper columns.  The Fashion Institute of Technology holds the preparatory drafts of some of her writing.  Viewing these, one gets a sense of her process.  I was stunned, for example, to discover a bundle of handwritten, sparse, notes, jotted down on torn little scraps of ‘Hotel Chelsea’ (where she resided for a time) notepaper, the notes being reflections by Hawes on (none other than) JC Flugel’s The Psychology of Clothes (that fashion theory classic, and hardly bedtime reading).  Her notes on the book are cursory.  One scrap reads ‘Masculinity/Clothes are symbols of work and duty/No softness or self-indulgence/Moral, muscular, phallic’.  Flugel’s Psychology of Clothes was, of course, first published in 1930, so his work was contemporary to Hawes’s most intense period of design and formed part of the broader socio-cultural backdrop of influences against which she was working.  I was also reminded when recently re-reading Valerie Steele’s Paris Fashion that psychoanalysis was a keen influence on Surrealist artists of the 1930s and their attempts to exploit the unconscious.  The influence of Freud was significant on educated Europeans and Americans of the day also, and Hawes makes notes on him too.  Ah ha!  There you have it.  And so, another piece of the jigsaw falls into place.

Cutting Cloth Accordingly

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Hawes’s ‘Budget System’ invokes the adage of ‘cutting one’s coat according to one’s cloth’. Photo ‘Elizabeth Hawes’ c.1932, Ralph Steiner (1899-1986)

The arrival of a new year brings resolutions, healthy diets, fitness regimens and promises wholesome.  It also, traditionally, heralds the start of the January sales (although, these days, prices seem to be slashed well before the turn of the year, and ‘Black Friday’ bargains appear at the beginning of December in the US).  With the onset of 2014, and in the sales spirit, it seems appropriate to offer a piece that is loosely themed around price cutting, the cut-price, or more accurately, the economical.

Elizabeth Hawes, it appears, was keen to promote the idea of her designs as being value-for-money.  In the Autumn of 1934, Hawes mailed ‘announcements’ to her clientele, giving details of her recent change of location (from Manhattan’s West 56th to East 67th) and also introducing her ‘Budget System’.  One of several ‘announcements’ explains the system thus: “Many of our customers already use it.  You figure out what you have that is still good, what you will need for a season, how much you have to spend.  We wangle it out, clothes, hats and bags'”  This ‘Budget System’, devised by Hawes as one of a clutch of wily marketing ploys, is mentioned in a number of contemporary editorials.  It smacks of Hawesian novelty.  But 1934 may also be significant here: the Depression Era radically reduced consumer spending.  Thriftiness was the order of the day.  Hawes was selling luxury goods, albeit to a wealthy clientele that mostly sat ‘above’ the real hardships of the Depression, but budgetary mindfulness was a useful promotional tool.

The theme of thriftiness and economy is a constant in the world of Hawes.  Much of her distaste for fashion (“that horrid little man”) was borne from what Hawes deemed as its unnecessary pursuit of the new.  Hawes favoured style over fashion and felt that clothes should be enduringly stylish and not fall out-of-date.  She made this point often but an incident in 1948 underscores her chutzpah in so doing.  Having spent a decade pursuing other interests, Hawes returned to design with a Fall/Winter collection (named after beverages, including a negligee named ‘Ovaltine’).  At the launch event, and unbeknownst to the audience, Hawes opened with a parade of her older gowns from over a decade before, which she had borrowed for the evening from former clients.   Hawes was determined to prove the timelessness of her designs, sending her older clothes down the runway as the aperitif to her new collection.  A write-up of the show stated that this exercise proved “once again that she creates for the female figure of our millennium, not our ‘Season'”.  Happy new year!