Cutting Cloth Accordingly


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  Hawes favoured style over fashion and felt that clothes should be enduringly stylish and not fall out-of-date.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!