Friday, 22 April 2016

Fashion is Spinach by Elizabeth Hawes



published 1938

** blogfriend Shay points out in the comments that you can find this book free online.





Elizabeth Hawes 1
 


[A potential customer] has never taken the time off to decide what kind of a person she either is or wants to appear to be. Therefore she misses half the fun of buying clothes and makes it just twice as difficult for her dressmaker and herself.

If some lady came in to me (and sometimes they do) and said, “look here, I’m 47 and I have grey hair and look rather severe and forbidding. It is essential to me that on Wednesday March 17th, at 8 o’clock, I look 35 and very very appealing. I will be in a modern livingroom with dark gray walls and silver and white furniture. There will be yellow flowers. I am a perfect 36 except for my chest which is flat. My breasts droop a little and one of my hips is two inches bigger than the other. What shall we do?” Then I can whip out an answer in the guise of a few possible dresses.
 
 
commentary: Kate Walker is a good friend to this blog, and has recommended many a book to me. She told me about this one ages ago, along with a NYTimes article on Hawes, which is here.

And this is such a good book – I want to recommend it to many of my blog friends eg Lucy Fisher & Daniel Milford Cottam who I know would love it (and of course may already know of it). I got hold of a reprint copy – there are various options to find the book, and you can get it on Kindle and via itunes.

I had never heard of her before, but Elizabeth Hawes was a very successful American designer of the 1930s, and this book combines a form of autobiography and her theories on fashion. The title comes from the celebrated New Yorker cartoon of the little boy being asked to eat broccoli: “I say it’s spinach - and I say to hell with it.”

The book is a free and easy wander through Hawes’ career up to the date of writing, interspersed with her theories on fashion. She went to Paris as a young graduate in the 1920s, and this section reminded me of the works of the great food writer MFK Fisher (the young American girl discovering life in Europe) and is quite like an early version of Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado. It is full of fascinating detail of the world of high fashion there, and she explains the way designs from the top Paris fashion houses – then seen as the only places to find good clothes – were disseminated downmarket via legal and less legal means. This is the world of the copyists and the sketchers, and it is riveting.

But Hawes decided good clothes could come from other places, so she returned to the USA to set up as an American designer, making clothes in New York. Her contention is that ‘Fashion’ is a terrible term, a lie and a myth that stops people from dressing well. She wants to make clothes that last at least three years, and that suit the wearer – so not necessarily based on what some designer says is in or out in the way of waists and hemlines.

She’s a very immediate and interesting writer – I think the book could have done with a good edit, sometimes it seems to be all over the place, but that didn’t stop me from being completely riveted by it, couldn’t put it down. It’s full of anecdotes and jokes and charm, and on the same page you can find a para that is complete history, redolent of the times, a different world – and also a comment on fashion, or clothes, or women’s lives that makes you say ‘that could have been written today.’ She sounds like a tremendously interesting woman, full of ideas and theories and notions. There will be another post on the book.

The picture shows an advert for chewing gum. Hawes provided the clothes for filmstar endorser Joan Bennett – she explains in detail how this practice worked, and what a boost it could be to sales.

Smuggled designs from the Paris shows were a feature of the 1960s Murder a la Mode, and there have been many other fashion-related books on the blog – including Anne Scott James’s In the Mink, and this look at a Dior show.











17 comments:

  1. Oh, Moira, this is exactly the sort of book I would have recommended to you! It sounds really interesting, even for people who aren't as knowledgeable about and interested in fashion and popular taste as you are. And I do like that matter-of-fact writing style.

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    1. Yes Margot, it could have been designed for me. And she does tell a good story - as well as suggesting men should wear skirts...

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  2. I really want to read this. I've been trying to track down an affordable reprint but keep failing - I should just go for a reprint and get on with it! I have read her Why Women Cry, which is fascinating. Not fashion, but the problems she saw that women would face postwar.

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    1. There were copies on iTunes which were the cheapest I saw - I presume that is just like buying a book for Kindle but I don't know. My reprint copy wasn't cheap but I don't regret it. Keep looking - I'm guessing you will LOVE it.

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  3. I found it for free online several months ago. Funny how it never occurred to me this would be the perfect book for your blog.

    https://archive.org/details/fashionisspinach00hawerich

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    1. It's fabulous isn't it? There are so many people who would love it...

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  4. You will not be surprised to learn that I love this book! I recently lucked into the sequel, "It's Still Spinach," for a mere dollar on Amazon - someone must have been napping! - but I can't really recommend it, I think Fashion is Spinach is brilliant in itself.

    Hawes is such a tragic figure at the end of the day - I have Bettina Burcn's biography of her, and it is quite heart-rending - Hawes was VERY outspoken and opinionated and high-principled, but the sad fact is that she was unfairly victimized by the Red-Baiters - they mixed her up with another Elizabeth Hawes, who was even more dangerous and high-risk, and really destroyed her post-war life and career over this misunderstanding. She ended up becoming an alcoholic and basically drank herself to death.

    I often cite her men's braces metaphor for fashion to describe the difference between clothing we want, and clothing we are forced to buy by manufacturers.

    The material about copy shops in Paris is AMAZING, a real resource on such an under-documented (unsurprisingly so) aspect of fashion. Elizabeth Hawes is definitely up there as one of my Top 10 Really Rather Interesting Fashion Designers, along with Elsa Schiaparelli.

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    1. Although, like Jean Muir after her, Hawes would HATE being called a fashion designer - she insisted that she was a clothing designer, just as Jean Muir insisted that she was a dressmaker.

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    2. Thanks Daniel - as I say above, I did suspect this wasn't going to be news to you! Sad but interesting about her life - I did guess something like that from the skimpy bio on Wikipedia. I'm sure I will re-read this book - so full of fascinating info that you don't see anywhere else, as well as its own intrinsic charm.

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  5. Speaking of fashion books - I have to STRONGLY recommend "Something Wholesale." This is hilarious, written by Eric Newby who was better known as a travel writer/journalist, but who, immediately post-war, dabbled in the world of fashion wholesale - and the fact that he isn't a fashionista makes the book SO BRILLIANT - it's amazing, so much detail, so much honesty, great ear for dialogue and eccentricity.

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    1. I have a copy on my shelves - I read a lot of him as a travel writer 30 years ago, and probably thought dept stores less interesting then. Nowadays I would much rather read someone's experience in a shop than travelling - I actually think it tells you more about the world. I have just taken it down to read....

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    2. Stumbled across this.... and just wondered, what did you think of Eric Newby a second time round?

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    3. Ahem. I did take it down from the shelf, and it is sitting in pole position, but haven't actually picked it up. I will, I will...

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  6. It sounds fascinating. I've always thought that anything can be made interesting if the author is sufficiently interested in the subject. 'Fashion' always comes across as rather pretentious and rarefied, but in the end it is a business and it does impinge on a lot of the population. I'm probably about the least fashionable person possible, but looking at some photos of my younger self that recently turned up during spring-cleaning, the world of fashion did touch my life (The flaaaaares!)

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    1. Exactly - expertise and good writing will get you a long way. And on fashion - well I'm quite glad there wasn't FB and Instagram recording my every mistake when I was younger...

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  7. ggary makes a good point. Any topic can be interesting if the author can write enthusiastically about it. Well maybe it takes a bit more than that but still. I think I would enjoy this too but have too much else to read. But I enjoyed hearing about it.

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    1. Yes - enthusiasm and knowledge. There are topics that you think you wouldn't enjoy or have an interest in, but with the right person writing ...

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