1940s Designers

1940s Designers

Madame Grès/ Alix 

Germaine Émilie Krebs was born in Paris in 1903. She was originally interested in pursuing sculpture but when her family objected, she switched her attention to fashion design. Her first job was as a hat maker and later she was apprenticed to Maison Premet, where she learned haute couture. 

The dates are unclear but she became an assistant designer at La Maison Barton (Juliette Barton) in the early 30s. Such was her design prowess that she soon became an owner in the business and their names were combined to create La Maison Alix Barton. Her signature style was classical drapery, creating elegant gowns influenced by Greco-Roman sculpture. She draped and designed on live models and often worked with silk jersey and taffeta. 

She designed costumes for Jean Giraudoux’s 1935 play ‘The Trojan War Will Not Take Place” and received critical acclaim for her work. This propelled her into the limelight, allowing her to design for notable figures such as the Duchess of Windsor, Grace Kelly, Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo. 

“It is Alix—Alix with the soul of a sculptor and a talent for draping new to Western civilization—who is the talk of Paris. The drapery of this young newcomer to the Grande Couture is firing a shot that will be heard around the fashion world,” Vogue enthused in 1935.

In 1937, she married a Russian painter Serge Czerefkov. She sold her shares in Alix Barton in 1941 and opened her own house under the name Madame Grès (an anagram of Serge). During WWII, German forces demanded that she design utilitarian clothing. Wives of German officers also demanded she design dresses for them, despite the fact that she was Jewish. She designed clothing mirroring the colours of the French flag and even embroidered the star of David on the inside of garments. 

After the war, she returned to producing gowns with an abundance of fabric, focusing on beautiful pleated Grecian goddess gowns for which she became known. She could use 20-30 metres of fabric on just one dress. Grès employed innovative construction techniques, pleating and tucking the materials into a shaping suitable to the body. She was named Chevalier of the Legion of Honour in 1947.

In the 1950s, she experimented with simpler cuts and drew inspiration from saris and kimonos. 

Her signature became cut-outs on gowns that made exposed skin part of the design, yet still had a classical, sophisticated feel. It was quite unusual for the era’s formal wear.

She released her first fragrance in 1959, ‘Cabochard’. 

She used silk taffeta to create dramatic voluminous details that contrasted with her draped and pleated column dresses. She was also committed to using unbroken lengths of fabric in her work. 

In 1970, she debuted vertical peekaboo opening bodice designs. She was elected President of the Chambre Syndicale of Haute Couture in 1972 and received the Dé d'Or (Golden Thimble) for dressmaking by Cartier in 1976.

The New York Times called her couture house “the most intellectual place in Europe to buy clothes.”

In the 1980s, she was one of the last haute couture designers to launch a RTW collection, which she likened to prostitution. She then sold her company and retired, now in her 80s. Due to some poor business dealings, she lost her fortune and lived the remainder of her days in relative poverty. Her house was brought to ruin by the new owners. With help from some other designers (YSL, Cardin, Givenchy), she was able to rent an apartment and continue sewing for friends. The final garment designed by her was a swelling bodice dress ordered by Hubert de Givenchy in 1989. 

By 1993, she was moved to a retirement home where she died soon after, a week from her 90th birthday. Her death was kept secret by her daughter Anne for over a year. During this time, Anne had posed as Grès in letters to curators in New York who were planning a retrospective of her work.

Her house fell into a number of different hands and the last Grès store closed in 2012. 

She is remembered as the "Sphinx of Fashion" and a master of the wrapped and draped dress, inspiring a number of other designers from Azzedine Alaïa to Issey Miyake

Norman Hartnell

Designer to the Royals.

Born in London in 1901, he first turned his hand to design while studying at Cambridge University. There, he created the costumes for the Footlights Dramatic Club. Having found his passion, he dropped out of college and used his Cambridge connections to find upper class clients. He opened his first shop in Mayfair in 1923. He was soon designing for the silver screen and high society women. Although expressing the spirit of the Bright Young Things and Flappers, his designs overlaid the harder silhouettes with a fluid romanticism in detail and construction. The originality and intricacy of Hartnell embroideries were frequently described in the press.

In 1935, Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester asked Hartnell to create her wedding dress, as well as looks for her bridesmaids. Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were among those bridesmaids, and their mother took a particular liking to Hartnell's designs.

From then on, Hartnell would be a favourite of the Queen Mother's; she awarded him a Royal Warrant in 1940, signifying his importance.
Hartnell created the two most memorable designs Princess and later Queen Elizabeth II ever wore: her 1947 wedding dress, and her 1953 coronation gown. 

Wedding Gown:

Coronation Dress:

The queen’s varied wardrobe during the royal tour of 1953-4 gained press and newsreel headlines internationally, not least for the cotton dresses worn and copied worldwide, many ordered from a specialist wholesale company, Horrockses. 

Hartnell's designs were often intricate and always glamorous. Looking back at his work, it seems to exemplify a certain midcentury opulence.
In the mid-1950s, Hartnell reached the peak of his fame and the business employed some 500 people.

Hartnell's design for the wedding dress of Princess Margaret in 1960 marked the last full State occasion for which he designed an impressive tableau of dresses. It also marked the swan-song of lavish British couture.

He was knighted in 1977 and passed away in 1979. His house continued operations after his death until eventually closing in 1992.
He is featured as a character in the first two seasons of the Netflix drama The Crown, portrayed by Richard Clifford.


Main Rousseau Bocher was born in Chicago in 1890. He served in intelligence during WWI in France and moved permanently to Paris thereafter to pursue opera. However, he ended up working as an illustrator for Harper’s Bazaar and then as a Vogue fashion editor between 1922 and 1929.  He became editor in chief of French Vogue in 1927. He contributed the famous drawing of Chanel’s “Ford” little black dress. 

He turned his hand to design in 1929 when he set up his couture business in Paris. It operated there until 1939, when he moved back to the states. 

While in Paris, he gained a reputation for his sophisticated garments and created the concept of the strapless dress and beaded cashmere sweater. His following included fashion editors, aristocrats, socialites and actresses. His most famous patron was Wallis Simpson, who was ever loyal to him. He designed her wedding dress and provided her trousseau upon her marriage to King Edward VIII. The wedding dress was widely copied and is today housed at the Met museum. 


Read about Wallis in our 1920s & 1930s fashion icons blog post HERE. 


His final collection in Paris in 1939 challenged the silhouette at the time, creating a wasp waist and a defined bosom. This predated Dior’s New Look by 8 years. The Mainbocher corset was photographed by Horst P. Horst, now one of the photographer’s most famous images. 

Mainbocher left France at the start of WWII and set up a new salon beside Tiffany’s in New York. He soon established himself as a leading American designer. He designed shorter evening gowns under wartime restrictions and “cocktail aprons” which transformed any dress into suitable evening attire.

He also designed military and civilian uniforms which allowed him to reclaim an American identity. 


He continued to dress famous women including Doris Duke, Gloria Vanderbilt, Babe Paley and C.Z. Guest. In 1947, eight of the New York Dress Institute's Ten ‘Best-Dressed Women in the World’ were Mainbocher clients.

His design innovations include bare armed blouses for suits, sari-style evening dresses and the bump shoulder.

He designed costumes for many broadway plays and musicals between the 40s and 60s.

He moved his business to Fifth Avenue in 1961. He retired and closed the business in 1971, spending his last few years between Paris and Munich until he died in 1976. 

In 2002, Mainbocher was honoured with a bronze plaque on New York’s fashion walk of fame. 

The first retrospective dedicated to the designer took place at the Chicago History Museum between 2016 and 2017.

Bonnie Cashin

Bonnie Cashin

Bonnie was born in California in 1908. Her father was a photographer and her mother a dressmaker, owning a number of dress shops. While she was still in high school, Bonnie was hired to make costumes for Los Angeles ballet company Fanchon and Marco. When she graduated school in 1925, she became the company’s full time designer. In 1934, Cashin moved to New York with the company and worked at the Roxy theatre. Harper’s editor Carmel Snow urged sportswear manufacturer Louis Adler (of Adler & Adler) to hire her as a designer in 1937. 

When WWII started, Bonnie designed uniforms for women in the armed forces.

Bonnie Cashin

In 1943, Cashin returned to California, where she joined 20th Century Fox. While there, she worked on sixty films including as a costume designer for Laura (1944),  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), Anna & the King of Siam (1946) and Nightmare Alley (1947). During this time, she married and divorced Disney illustrator Robert Sterner. 

Bonnie Cashin Laura

Bonnie Cashin

Bonnie Cashin Nightmare Alley

In 1949, she moved back to New York and created her first collection with her own name on the label (for Adler & Adler). 

In 1950, she won Coty and Neiman Marcus awards after she introduced the concept of layering and coining the term. 

In 1952, she opened her own business ‘Bonnie Cashin Designs’. Her mother was the only other major stakeholder. The two lived in adjoining apartments in Manhattan, where her mother sewed Bonnie’s garment samples. 

In 1962, she was hired as the designer for Coach. In 1964, she introduced a brass turn lock toggle closure that was featured on all her Coach bags, which she continued to design until 1974. The design was inspired by the turnlocks on top of her 1940s convertible. She also included this feature in her clothing designs. 

Between 1953 and 1977, she designed for the leather company Sills & Co. 

Cashin was famous for her witty and ingenious approaches to designing for mobility, including the 1964 dog leash skirt: a long wool skirt that could be instantly shortened for walking up stairs by latching a small brass ring sewn at the bottom to a small brass clasp sewn into the waistline.

Other trademarks included oversized pockets, funnel necks, canvas raincoats, mohair and even ponchos. 

She designed for over 35 companies including Hermès, Ballantyne, Main Street Rainwear, Crescendo, Superb Gloves, Modelia, Russ Taylor and Meyers. 

She founded the Knittery in 1972, which produced limited edition collections of handmade knit-to-fit sweaters. 

She was inducted into the Coty Hall of Fame in 1972.

She opened her Cashin Country line in 1977.

She established the Innovative Design Fund in 1979, which donated up to $10,000 to aspiring designers.

She retired in 1985 and passed away in 2000. She was inducted into the Fashion Walk of Fame in New York in 2001.

In 2016, the owner of Cashin’s archive, Dr. Stephanie Lake, released the biography Bonnie Cashin: Chic is Where You Find It. 

Stephanie created the instagram account @cashincopy to document Bonnie's influence on the runways and even outright modern copies of her work.

Above: Raf Simons for Calvin Klein 2018. 

Her work is housed in over 40 museums across the US. 

Christian Dior

Christian was born in Normandy in 1905 to a wealthy family. He left school in 1928 to open an art gallery, selling works by the likes of Pablo Picasso. From 1937, he worked for the designer Robert Piguet alongside Pierre Balmain before leaving when he was called to military service during WWII. He left the army in 1942 and began working for Lucien Lelong where he and Balmain were now the primary designers. While the war was ongoing, the house along with many others, catered to the wives of Nazi officers occupying Paris. Meanwhile, his sister was incarcerated in a concentration camp as a member of the French resistance. (Miss Dior perfume was later named in her honour).

In 1946, Dior founded his own house. His first 90 piece collection ‘Corolle’ was presented in February 1947. The influential editor of Harper’s Bazaar Carmel Snow famously coined the term ‘The New Look’ to describe his creations, which were characterized by a nipped-in waist and a voluminous mid-calf skirt. She said “It’s quite a revolution, dear Christian. Your dresses have such a new look”. She used her magazine to champion his work. 

“The collection was a repudiation of the styles of the 1920s and 1930s, and it was also clearly indebted to the styles and body-shapers of the late nineteenth century.”- Met Museum.  It was considered ‘new’ following the fabric rationing and utilitarian designs that were necessary during the recent world war, and also a rejection of the bias-cut and free flowing designs of the 20s and 30s. Pierre Cardin was employed in the tailoring atelier at Dior at this time and it was he who cut the famous ‘Bar Suit’ for this collection. The Bar suit was an architectural marvel, made with four yards of silk shantung in a soft ivory shade and padded at the hipline for a more rounded, feminine shape. The whole look revolutionized women’s dress and re-established Paris as the centre of fashion in the post-war years. It influenced designers for years to come, seen as a refreshing antidote to wartime austerity and ‘de-feminizing’ uniforms. Dior actually credits the look to the American designer Charles James. 

Not everyone was pleased however. Some viewed it as regressive, wasteful and anti-feminist. Coco Chanel who famously liberated women from their corsets in the 1920s remarked, "Only a man who never was intimate with a woman could design something that uncomfortable."

Expansion of the brand from France began by the end of 1949 with the opening of a Christian Dior boutique in New York City. By the end of the year, Dior fashions made up 75% of Paris's fashion exports and 5% of France's total export revenue.

In 1950, he received the Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur from France.

Dior released a book in 1951. A number of licensing deals were made and branches opened internationally. The first shoe line was launched in 1953. He had established an empire by the mid-50s. 

He has over 20 costume designer credits on imdb. He received an academy award nomination for costume design in 1955 with ’Terminal Station’.

In 1955, the teenage Yves Saint Laurent became his design assistant. Dior suddenly died of a heart attack in 1957, leaving the young Yves at the helm of the company. By the time of his death, his name had become synonymous with taste and luxury. 

The brand continued without him under such designers as Marc Bohan and Gianfranco Ferré. It is currently directed by Kim Jones. 

Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris, the novel, was first published in 1958, a year after Dior’s death. It was adapted into a film three times, the most recent being in 2022. It follows the exploits of a widowed London charwoman as she strives to travel to Paris and acquire her very own Dior couture gown. It is a heartwarming tale and the costumes are to die for. Designer Jenny Bevan received Academy and BAFTA nomination's for her work. 

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