Style Stakes

Elizabeth Hawes, 1903-1971

Elizabeth Hawes, 1903-1971

My blog originated in the Autumn of 2013 as a way of recording my exploits and reporting on my adventures as a Visiting Fellow (from Nov 2013-Jan 2014) at the Bard Graduate Center (BGC) in New York City.  During my time at the Bard, I carried out archive-led academic research on a project titled ‘The Style Stakes: Elizabeth Hawes, Equestrian Events and 1930s Fashion in the United States’ – hence the (enduring) name of my blog.  I was invited by US Studies Online to write up a reflective account of my experiences of blogging at the Bard – and you are able to read that article, ‘Blogs on Togs’, hereAs time has worn on, my blog has expanded beyond that original Style Stakes Project to be something of a mixed bag of tricks. The common thread, though, is that everything here pertains to my academic research in some way, be it the demands of writing for publication, the treasures of an archive or the oddities of scholarly life.  I should probably point out at this juncture that all views expressed here are my own.

I have a long standing research interest in 1930s fashion generally and also the history of spectator dress (both American and British).  The BGC Fellowship allowed me to pursue this interest in a very direct way: ‘putting’ me in the archives of some leading, specialist, museum collections (namely Brooklyn Museum, the Fashion Institute of Technology and the Metropolitan Museum of Art).  Over the course of my 3-month tenure in New York, my focus was on the life and work of the remarkable – and redoubtable – American fashion  designer, Elizabeth Hawes (1903-1971).  Given her extraordinary accomplishments in the contemporary world of 1930s couture and made-to-measure clothing, a disproportionately modest sliver of scholarship exists on her and her designs.  A couple of exhibitions (in 1967 and 1985) and a biography (in 1988) belie her historical status as a pioneer of ‘The American Look’ and a poster girl for the, then burgeoning, domestic fashion design industry centred on thirties New York.  An overarching aim of my ‘Style Stakes’ project was, then, to begin to reassert Elizabeth Hawes in the scholarly consciousness and as a figure with equal import to her (better known and more celebrated) peers Edith Reuss, Muriel King and Clare Potter.

Happily, for the academic researcher, Elizabeth Hawes herself was a meticulous self-archivist.  Unusually, concurrent to her career as a designer she also worked as a journalist and author, reporting on fashion for The New Yorker  magazine (among others).  During her lifetime she produced eight highly provocative, politically charged, books – manifestos, indeed – drawing on her autobiographical story to highlight the inequalities in the contemporary fashion system, its labour force and gender relations.  In later years, Hawes became disenfranchised with fashion entirely, pursuing humanitarian causes and political activism with characteristic, ideologically-driven, zeal.

Hawes’s design scrapbooks, personal ephemera, business papers, manuscripts, clippings and garments are held by a number of museums and private institutions, and, during my time as a Bard Fellow, I consulted with a substantial helping of these.  There remains, however, far more archive material and secondary sources ‘to go at’.  Thus, my analysis and efforts are works-in-progress as time, funding, travel plans and professional commitments allow.   To date, I have disseminated the fruits of my Fellowship via public lectures, specialist seminars and at academic conferences, as well as through written works such as chapters and articles – and so, I continue.

My final paragraphs here are taken from the dust-jacket of Bettina Berch’s scrupulous and evocative biography of Elizabeth Hawes titled Radical By Design (1988, E. P Dutton).  The extract manages to condense what is an epic and intriguing life with both precision and concision.  One cannot fail, I believe, both to marvel and be intrigued by someone now lodged firmly on my personal list of heroines: Elizabeth Hawes.

“Some know Elizabeth Hawes as a fashion designer of the thirties and forties, author of the 1938 best-seller Fashion Is Spinach; others remember her for her sparkling and provocative columns in The New Yorker and the newspaper PM; Hawes’s later work as a union troubleshooter for the UAW in Detroit brought her renown of a different kind.  Most people today, however, have probably never heard of Elizabeth Hawes at all.

She apprenticed herself while very young to the unscrupulous, unstinting world of Parisian couture – her first job was as a design thief for a pirate house – and returned to New York in 1928 to start her own company.  She was determined to liberate Americans from what she saw as the hopelessly outworn dictates of the Parisian fashion mafia.  Her manifesto, Fashion Is Spinach, called the entire industry into question and daringly suggested that beautiful, high-quality clothing could be comfortable and functional.  Hawes promoted such iconoclastic ideas as trousers for women and bed jackets and bright colours for men.  She married Jospeh Losey in 1937, and began to design for the theatre and film as well.

To some it may have seemed a radical change when in the forties Hawes turned first to war plant work and then to union organizing, but for her it was simply an extension of her life’s philosophy: that everyone deserved a better one, from wardrobe to paycheck.  This new chapter of Hawes’s life took her far from the elite circles of Paris and Madison Avenue and into a far more hostile world, one shadowed during that period by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.

Passionate and fiercely iconoclastic all her life, Elizabeth Hawes was a visionary who worked to transform not only the way we dress but the world in which we live.”