Above: Eleanor Lambert, photographed by Cecil Beaton in the 1930s
Eleanor Lambert, aka the Empress of New York, was arguably one of the most, if not the most, influential women of the 20th century within art and fashion. She was from Crawfordsville Indiana, where her father left her family to work for the circus, so she earned money cooking for the boys of the local college. She moonlighted as a shopping columnist at two newspapers, and briefly studied to be a sculptor before realizing her eye for art was better than
In 1925 at the age of 22, she moved to New York City with her first husband and found work writing a fashion newsletter called Breath of the Avenue. She also designed book covers and cold called celebrities for quotes to print for publisher Franklin Spear. She made $16 a week and everyday she would spend her lunch break observing the members of the Algonquin Round Table, an exclusive club of writers, critics, and actors, while she sat at another table. Once she was invited out with the group and they convinced her to get a tattoo! Spear recognized her ease at networking and suggested she set up shop in his office for her own public relations business. She went to the hub of New York’s galleries and convinced 10 galleries to hire her as their publicist. She ended up promoting the artists instead of the galleries, often being paid in art rather than money and by the time she was 30 she had an enviable art collection. She represented artists Salvador Dali, Isamo Noguchi, Cecil Beaton and Jackson Pollock, to name a few.
Above: Portrait of Eleanor Lambert by Cecil Beaton
During her time in the Art world, she created the Art Dealers Association of America, as well as the Parke-Bennet Galleries auction house which later was acquired by Sotheby’s. She went on to help establish the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and the Whitney Museum of American Art with Gertrude Vanderbilt in 1930.
Designer Annette Simpson was her first fashion client, asking Lambert to get her a newspaper interview like she had done for one of her artists. A few years later, the designer Mollie Parnis asked her for representation. Her ambition and drive was built upon championing American art and design, promoting American artists and showcasing their importance.
From that point on, she ended up representing the biggest names in American fashion: Mollie Parnis, Ceil
Chapman, Mainbocher, Claire McCardell, Adrian, Norman Norell, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Pauline Trigère, Calvin Klein, and Halston to name a few.
At this time, American designer names were not labels - manufacturing labels from stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman donned the clothing instead, and most designers were relatively unknown unlike the Parisian designers who had eponymous labels. She had approached Diana Vreeland to pitch the idea that American talent deserved the same name recognition and promotion through magazines like Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, to which Vreeland scoffed and dismissed.
Above: First Fashion Press Week, held in 1943
It was during WWII, when the Paris houses were unable to produce clothing and Americans were shopping less, that the garment worker’s union hired Lambert to help in their campaign to drive the public to shop again. With the ILGWU and New York City’s manufacturers, she established the New York Dress Institute in 1941, with funding from the State Department and the Department of Commerce. She pushed American designers into the spotlight, organizing exhibits of American clothes and created the International Best Dressed List - a spin off of Paris’ already established Best Dressed List, which never featured any Americans. The aim was to help promote American socialites and designers. The list was voted upon by fashion designers and industry professionals, and often included socialites like Babe Paley and the Vanderbilts, fashion editors like Anna Wintour and Andre Leon Talley, and duchesses and princesses. She and her executives chose a group of four designers - Nettie Rosenstein, Jo Copeland, Maurice Rentner (Bill Blass’s future boss) and Hattie Carnegie - to represent as leaders for a new sector of the institute called The Couture Group. In 1943, to increase the promotions of the Dress Institute and Couture Group, she conceived the first American Press Week, known today as New York Fashion Week, as well as the Coty Awards. She paid for publications from across the country to send journalists to cover the event since most publications could not afford to pay for journalists to go themselves.
Above: Fashion Press Week in the 1950s
When WWII ended, the American customers continued to purchase American designers, with many European designers unable to stay in business. Dior was quick to shake up his designs, creating a new silhouette in 1947. He hired Eleanor to publicize it. His 'New Look' collection is still the most successful fashion launch in history. After Dior, other European designers became her clients including Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Cardin. She was also tapped to
create fashion weeks for England, France and Italy.
Above: The Met Gala Photographed in 1960
In 1948, after helping found the Costume Institute and merging it with the MET, Lambert created the first Costume Institute Fundraiser, which was an intimate dinner that cost $50 and took place in a different location each year in New York City at midnight. She headed the event for the first two decades of its incarnation.
During the 1960s, Lambert was invited by US Senators to appear at the open hearing to form the national arts council. However, for fashion to be considered acceptable as a form of American art, they required the involvement of a not-for-profit organization, rather than a commercial industry or business. Thanks to her client list, she rallied a group of designers including Bill Blass, Jane Derby, Luis Estevez and Rudi Gernreich to form the CFDA and it was inducted into the National Arts Council.
Liza Minelli performing at the Battle of Versailles
The next event she organized to put American designers on the world stage was 1973’s The Battle of Versailles. She was approached by Gerald Van der Kamp, the curator of Versailles, who needed to raise money to restore the queen’s bedroom. He suggested a fashion show, and Lambert agreed, but only if American designers would be allowed to present. Thus, the concept for the iconic Paris vs. America theme was born, with Lambert curating the American side and Marie-Helene de Rothschild choosing the French team.
Above: Program from the Battle of Versailles
Oscar de la Renta at the Battle of Versailles
Eleanor Lambert in the white turban at Truman Capote's Black and White Ball
Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe at the March of Dimes Fashion Show Charity Fundraiser
Her other notable contributions to the fashion world include being the first to hire Black models in fashion shows and advertisements, and championing Black fashion designers. She also counselled Truman Capote on his 1966 Black & White Ball, and was instrumental in getting 53 million people to the New York World’s Fair in 1964 to see her fashion shows. She also raised millions of dollars for the March of Dimes charity for infants through her annual celebrity filled fashion shows with the Dress Institute. What a legend!
The Met Gala
The fundraiser was founded in 1948 by fashion publicist, and CFDA founder Eleanor Lambert. In the 1920s, stage designer Aline Bernstein and director Irene Lewisohn had the idea to create a collection of costumes for the New York theatre. Over the course of over a decade, they amassed a collection of 8000 costumes and in 1937, decided to establish the Museum of Costume Art to house it all. In 1946, it merged with The Metropolitan Museum of Art and was renamed The Costume Institute (via Met Museum). Two years later in 1948, Eleanor planned and hosted the first annual fundraiser. The event consisted of a midnight dinner set in a new location around New York each year for New York’s socialites and elite. It cost $50 to attend and you best wear your best!
The World of Balenciaga 1973 Met Gala
This went on for just over two decades, until the early 1970s, and then Diana Vreeland took over organizing and held the fundraiser at the Met for the first time. Vreeland joined the event committee after leaving her post at Vogue in 1971. To help convince the Met to bring her on, a group of friends—rumoured to include Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Babe Paley—raised enough money to fund her salary for the first two years. Instead of it being an intimidate dinner, Vreeland turned it into the party that would be talked about for years to come. Guests were taken down an elevator and were welcomed into an opium den-like atmosphere, featuring faceless mannequins dressed with pantyhose pulled over their heads, and atmospheric music. The event began taking shape with a new theme each year and the guest list grew, featuring celebrities and darlings of the fashion world. It gained more and more attention, and people came in more and more daring and over the top looks as the years went on! Some of the themes during Vreeland’s reign included The World of Balenciaga in 1973, Romantic and Glamorous Hollywood Design in ‘74, The Glory of Russian Style in ‘76, La Belle Époque in ‘82, and Yves Saint Laurent 25 Years of Design in ‘83. She produced 14 Met Galas before her death in 1989.
Cher at the 1974 Met Gala wearing the famous Bob Mackie naked dress
In 1995, Anna Wintour presided over the Met Gala and moved it to happen on the first Monday in May. What’s been your favourite theme?