American Women Designers 1920s-1960s

Pauline Trigère

pauline trigere fashion designer

An innovative and thoughtful designer, Trigère was known for her meticulous cuts and tailoring and using common textiles for elevated eveningwear designs. She is also credited with introducing the jumpsuit as a high fashion garment in the 60s, paving the way for Halston’s and YSL’s Studio 54 designs. Even more importantly, Trigère was the first major designer to hire an African-American model, Beverly Valdes, in 1961.

We are lucky to have come across a few collectible items from Trigère over the years, including a gorgeous dress and jacket set and a bodysuit and skirt set. Have a look and maybe even bring home a piece of fashion history ✨✨✨

Pauline Trigere vintage print bodysuit and skirt set

Pauline Trigére vintage dress and jacket set

 

Mollie Parnis

Mollie Paris fashion designer

Mollie Parnis was an American fashion designer who contributed to the increasing recognition of American designers in the mid 20th century. She was famous for designing clothes worn by First Ladies, particularly Mamie Eisenhower and Lady Bird Johnson. Parnis' designs were included in the 1968 White House Fashion Show, which Lady Bird and her staff organized and is the only fashion show to ever be held in the White House.
She began as a designer for David Westheim in the late 1920s. In 1933, she and her husband started Parnis Livingston Inc., a business in the garment district of New York that sold women’s suits and blouses. In the 1940s, she began designing under her name only. She designed the cadet nurses corps uniform during WWII.
Parnis achieved popularity through her conservative, feminine, flattering designs, which were available in department stores across the United States. LIFE described her success, proclaiming that "When Mollie Parnis Thinks a Design Will Sell, It Goes."
Her Parnis Boutique label was launched in 1970, designed by Morty Sussman.

1970s Mollie Parnis Floral Halter-Neck Maxi Dress with Shawl

Right now in the shop, we have a 1970s floral halter maxi-dress & shawl and a 1960s lurex tiger print cocktail dress.

 

 

Vintage 60s Mollie Parnis Animal Print Gold Metallic Dress, B34

 

Vera Maxwell

Vera Maxwell fashion designer

Known as the American Chanel, Vera Maxwell was a pioneering American fashion designer.
In the early 1920s, she studied tailoring in London. By the late 20s, she began modelling for department stores in New York such as B. Altman’s. Her homemade garments and style were noticed and she began sketching for the fashion houses she modelled for. This kicked off her design career.
Maxwell was most famous for her suits and topcoats, worn for both the city and the country and characterized by excellent tailoring, choice fabrics, beautiful colours, and pragmatism.
In 1935, she released a practical “weekend wardrobe" of two jackets, two skirts and a pair of trousers partly inspired by Albert Einstein. The jacket could be mixed and matched with all three accompanying pieces to make travel easier. In 1999, the New York Times wrote that the "weekend wardrobe" was "so classic they could still be worn today."
Among her many innovations, in 1945, she designed a cotton coverall uniform for war workers at the Sperry Gyroscope Corporation. Known as the "Rosie the Riveter" jumpsuit or coveralls, they received an "E" for excellence rating from the United States government. They were the first jumpsuits for women.
Eventually she started her own company ‘Vera Maxwell Originals’ in 1947. Her first collection was sportswear focused. She was part of a pioneering group of American designers that came to prominence in the 40s creating more relaxed and quintessentially American clothing. Her contemporaries included Claire McCardell, Clare Potter, Carolyn Schnurer, and Tina Leser. Maxwell gave her clothing distinctively American names like "Daniel Boone" for Western wear.
One particular suit she designed in 1948 called ‘the flight suit’ featured an Irish tweed jacket with a large plastic lined ‘purse’ pocket that had multiple zippered compartments meant for storing toiletries so that one could freshen up on the go.
By the 1950s, she also was designing evening wear.
Maxwell always created her designs in a range of sizes, generally going up to a size 18 or 20 at a time when it was unusual for a designer to design clothes above a size 8.
She won the American Fashion Critics Coty Award in 1953 for coats and suits.
She was close friends with Grace Kelly and designed for First Ladies Rosalyn Carter and Pat Nixon.
Maxwell's clothes were usually described as "handsome, interesting, and eminently wearable," according to a New York Times article from November 1964.
She was the first American designer to use the synthetic fabrics Ultrasuede and Arel.
After the debut of an unsuccessful collection in the mid 60s, Maxwell withdrew from the industry. She resurfaced in 1970 with a collection that was introduced at B. Altman and was honoured the same year with a retrospective at the Smithsonian Institution.
She retired and closed her company in 1986.

Vintage 1960s 2-Piece Vera Maxwell Beige Bouclé Wool Coat Set, Medium  

We have a 1960s 2-piece coat set available in the shop. 

Edith Flagg

Edith Flagg fashion designer

Edith Flagg was an Austrian-born American fashion designer. She studied Fashion in Austria before the onset of WWII, when she fled to the Netherlands. Her husband was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944. She worked with the Dutch underground resistance and saved several lies by spying on Nazi soldiers. Edith remarried and moved to San Francisco and later Los Angeles, where she began working in the garment district. She produced her first line of dresses in 1956. She expanded into an international design house with offices and showrooms around the world. She manufactured clothing in the United States under ‘Edith Flagg inc.’ up until her retirement in 2000. Her clothes were a mid-priced line – dresses for the “Average American Woman.” She specialized in dress and jacket ensembles, and also included casual dresses in the five lines she produced each year. The brand was characterized by its wrinkle-resistant knitwear. She was the first person to import polyester to the United States and popularize it. This helped turn her into a multimillionaire.
She was also an active contributor to California Apparel News and @womensweardaily in a weekly column titled "By the Way." Later, she often appeared on the television show Million Dollar Listing Los Angeles to offer business advice to her grandson, Josh Flagg.

We included one of her 1960s linen pea coats in our Belfast edit. Such a classic!

Vintage 1960s Beige Linen Edith Flagg Pea Coat, M-L

Hattie Carnegie

Hattie Carnegie fashion designer

Hattie Carnegie (Henrietta Kanengeiser) was a fashion entrepreneur based in New York City from the 1920s to the 1950s.
She was born in Vienna but her family immigrated to America when she was a child. They settled in Manhattan and by age 15, she was modelling and trimming hats at a millinery factory.
She started designing hats and opened a custom clothing and millinery business with friend Rose Roth in 1909, changing her name to Carnegie after the richest man in America at the time.
By 1919, she was the sole proprietor of Hattie Carnegie Inc. She led a fashion empire that set the pace of American fashion for nearly three decades. She imported Paris designs, produced custom designs and a ready-to-wear collection, and sold other designers’ ready-to-wear. Even women who could not afford to buy Carnegie originals felt the influence of her style in the many mass-market copies of her work.
Lucille Ball began modelling for her in 1928.
She created a less expensive line called Spectator Sports during the Great Depression.
She had begun selling her ready-to-wear dresses, hats and accessories in stores around the country by the late 1930s.
Her company discovered some of the most prominent American fashion designers of the twentieth century, such as Norman Norell, Pauline Trigère, Jean Louis, James Galanos, and Clare McCardell.
By 1940, Carnegie’s operation was so large that it employed over 1000 workers.
In 1948, she was honored with the Coty American Fashion Critics Award.
Carnegie's specialty was "the little Carnegie suit”. Carnegie’s suits typified a style that was neither youthful nor matronly, but very feminine and very neat—the “Carnegie Look.”
In 1950, she was invited to apply her design sense to the Women's Army Corps (WAC) uniform, for which she received the Congressional Medal of Freedom.
By the time of her death in 1956, Carnegie had established an $8 million business.
Hattie Carnegie designs are in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

“The Carnegie look defined the American desire for a style that is discreet, simple, and sophisticated. Her career began at a time when Americans looked almost entirely to French haute couture for direction. When French fashion became unavailable during World War II, Carnegie continued producing high-quality clothing with the best American fabrics and designers. Carnegie’s work as a great editor of French haute couture for the American market as well as her extraordinary record of recognition and development of American talent place her firmly at the forefront of the development of American style in the twentieth century.”
- Jewish Womens Archive.

Elizabeth Hawes

Elizabeth Hawes fashion designer

Elizabeth Hawes was an American clothing designer, outspoken critic of the fashion industry, and champion of ready to wear. She was among the first Americans to establish their reputations outside of Paris haute couture. She was committed to the notion that form follows function and paramount in her design sensibilities was the desire to make clothes that were stylish, easy to move in, and by incorporating breathable fabrics, easy to wear.
She was born in New Jersey in 1903 to a middle class family. She began to sew her own clothes at age 10. By age 12, she was dressmaking professionally. This brief career seized when she started high school.
In 1923, at the end of her sophomore year, she went on a six-week course at Parson's School of Fine and Applied Arts, where she decided no art school could teach her how to design clothes. During the 1924 summer break, she secured an unpaid apprenticeship in the Bergdorf Goodman workrooms, to learn how expensive clothes were made to order.
Eventually, she resumed dressmaking, designing clothes for her classmates, and selling her designs through a dress shop on the edge of the campus.
Upon graduation she set sail for Paris and made regular fashion reports back to her local newspaper. Her friend got her a job at a dressmaker’s- a shop where high quality, illegal copies of haute couture dresses by the leading couturiers were manufactured and sold.
In January 1926, Hawes became a sketcher for a New York manufacturer of mass-produced clothing. By that Summer, she grew too guilty about stealing designs to continue. She became a full-time fashion correspondent.
She worked as a fashion buyer for Macy's, and then as a stylist in Lord and Taylor's Paris offices.
In 1928, she got a job with Paul Poiret’s sister Nicole Groult, where was permitted to develop her own designs.
She soon returned to New York and opened up a shop called Hawes-Harden with a friend. It gradually attracted a clientele that appreciated "original without being eccentric" designs. In 1930, Harden sold her share to Hawes.

In 1931, Hawes presented her collection in Paris. It was the first time that a non-French design house had shown its collection during the Paris season, which won Hawes a great deal of media attention.
She was credited, along with Annette Simpson and Edith Reuss, with working towards the first defined American style. She advocated trousers for women and followed her own advice.
In 1937, she presented an all-male fashion show of her own brightly coloured designs.
In 1938, Hawes published Fashion Is Spinach, an autobiographical critique and exposé of the fashion industry. It was followed in 1939 by the publication of another fashion manifesto, Men Can Take It.
While she made clothes to order, she believed that ready-to-wear was the only way ahead, and thought clothing retailers should each cater to one specific type of customer instead of all stocking the same styles.
After publishing her attack on the fashion industry, Hawes closed her dress business and wrote columns for PM, a populist afternoon newspaper, for which she was placed under FBI surveillance.
During WWII, she was a feminist writer, campaigner and union organizer.
She relaunched her business in 1948. The FBI contacted all her professional connections and informed them of her radical political activities and associations. As a result, she was shunned by industry professionals and her business venture failed.
Despite her harsh words about the fashion industry, she supported herself by working for Priscilla Kidder's fashion house Priscilla of Boston, an American bridal wear designer.
She tried to relaunch her design work in California in 1954, again without success.
For the rest of her life, in addition to her freelance work, she continued designing clothing for herself and her friends.
Hawes passed away at the famous Chelsea hotel in New York in 1971.

Anne Klein

Anne Klein fashion designer

You may have passed through her section at the Bay, or other department stores over the years and thought not too much about her label other than wondering, “is she related to Calvin?” Well we’re here to tell you that the answer is no!
Anne Klein, né Hannah Golofski, was born in 1923 in Brooklyn, NY. In 1937 at the age of 14, she received a scholarship to attend the Traphagen School of Fashion. Her first job in the industry was at Varden Petites, who’s line she re-launched by introducing fresh cuts and trends for petite and young women, which would become the line “Junior Miss”.
In 1940 she began designing for a ready to wear company, and eventually in 1944 she joined forces with Bonnie Cashin and Claire McCardell forming a design trio! Very cool!
In 1948 she married Ben Klein who was a clothing manufacturer, and together they launched the Junior Sophisticates clothing line where she was head designer. She was the first designer after Coco Chanel to take inspiration and adapt menswear styles for women with jackets, suits and shirts. She launched a collection of separates that could be interchanged to create different combinations in the 1950s.
After they eventually divorced, she freelanced and rehabbed established brands like Pierre Cardin and Evan-Picone. She made enough money to finally open her own studio and founded her namesake company in 1968. Over 750 stores nationwide carried her line.
In 1973, she was the only woman of the 5 American designers invited to show at the Battle or Versailles! Donna Karan was her assistant at the time, at just 25 years old. A year later she sadly died at the age of 50 of breast cancer and Karan took the lead of the company with Louis Dell’Olio.
Many lesser known or looked over brands like this exist and their histories are remarkable. Next time you walk through the Anne Klein department, you’ll know she held her place among the ranks of Oscar de la Renta, YSL, Halston, Bill Blass, and Givenchy!
We have some great pieces from Anne Klein including these two beautiful skirts!

Vintage Emerald Green Anne Klein Silk Circle Skirt, 50s-Style Skirt, XS

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