At my house, fashion means black slacks with no cat hair on them. I am elated if an outfit can double for a bicycle trip and shopping at the supermarket.
Not being fashionable, I was surprised to fall in love with Fashion Is Spinach (1938), a witty, addictive book by Elizabeth Hawes, a twentieth-century fashion sketcher, reporter, critic for The New Yorker, and designer of her own line of clothing. Part autobiography, part critique and history of the fashion industry in the 1920s and ’30s, this engrossing book makes me think of the humor writing of Cornelia Otis Skinner crossed with the radical criticism of Mary McCarthy. It has recently been reissued by Dover. Her eight other books are out of print.
Hawes writes dramatically, “I, Elizabeth Hawes, have sold, stolen, and designed clothes in Paris.”
Born in Ridgewood, New Jersey, in 1903 , she always loved sewing. As a child she made hats for her Kewpie dolls and designed and sewed her own dresses. By the age of 12, she was selling children’s dresses to a store in Pennsylvania. She gave this up in high school because she wanted more social life, but continued to make her own clothes.
I used Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar freely, copying sketches or changing them. This further enforced the French legend on my mind. All beautiful clothes were designed in France and all women, including myself, wanted them.
She is thankful that she “escaped going to art school” and went to Vassar, which was a family tradition. At first she had no direction. She was bored by English and history.
My first year at Vassar was marked by nothing much in particular. My sister was a senior and had a good many men for weekends. I tried to fall in with the same plan. It worked with fair success until the end of that year when I lost the beau I had kept hanging over from high school. He went to Williams and, after having me to one house party, outgrew me. I was quite unattractive and as I became progressively more serious-minded during the next three years, I had fewer boyfriends.
Having fewer boyfriends was a good thing at Vassar. Hawes became enraptured by economics, including Labor Problems and Socialism. She was entranced by the economic theory of Labour Party co-founder Ramsay MacDonald, and wrote her thesis on it. Outside classes, she continued to make clothes.
After graduation, she went to Paris on a shoestring. A couple of poorly-paid freelance fashion reporting jobs paid the rent for a small room with a basin. (She had to give up baths.) She knew hardly any French, and it took months to pick up.
But it didn’t prevent her working, and in Paris she learned the difference between style and fashion.
She tells us bluntly that there are two types of women: “One buys her clothes made-to-order, the other buys her clothes ready-made.”
The former are lucky, the ones who had a real style and clothing created by French designers. The rest of us must wear whatever Macy’s decides to sell.
Fashion is that horrid little man with an evil eye who tells you that your last winter’s coat may be in perfect physical condition, but you can’t wear it. You can’t wear it because it has a belt and this year “we are not showing belts.”
Fashion gets up those perfectly ghastly ideas, such as accessories should match, and proceeds to give you shoes, gloves, bag, and hat all in the same hideous shade of kelly green which he insists is chic this season whether it turns you yellow or not.
Paris fashion for Hawes in the ’20s was a crazy wild rush of making up fashion news (there were only two big shows a year by designers), and working at copy houses that tried to get illicit previews of designers like Chanel. Hawes got a job as a sketcher at a copy house, a dressmaking shop “where one buys copies of the dresses put out by the important retail designers. The exactitude of the copy varies with the price… ” (Generally they were about half the price.) She was sent to fashion shows to “copy” the clothing in sketches (which she had to do hastily afterwards from her notes on programs, and sometimes her programs were seized by the attendants. The copy house also paid American manufacturer buyers to let them see the latest clothing before it was sent by a fast ship to the U.S. One of their regulars was Madame Ellis.
Madame Ellis did not want to be seen at the copy house. She insisted that someone be sent to her.
I had a very large beaver coat. A fur coat in Paris is quite a rarity among the working class. Mine turned out to have a special value. I was requested to don it one day in November and go to the resident buying office through which Madame Ellis worked. It was toward the end of the mid-season buying, the day before a large boat was to sail.
Madame Ellis opened the boxes of Chanel dresses, told her to put them under her coat, “and get them back here as fast as you can.”
This is an absolutely compelling read. I love Hawes’s stories and her radical take on fashion. Ready-made clothes should be made for real women, who should be asked what they want. I couldn’t agree more.
Eventually she is disgusted by the theft of designs and finds work as a designer. And then she goes home to the U.S. to design and sew.
I long for these silk lounging pajamas. You can see them at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
By the way, Hawes was blacklisted during the McCarthy era in the ’50s. Her career never recovered.