Friday, 22 April 2016
Fashion is Spinach by Elizabeth Hawes
** blogfriend Shay points out in the comments that you can find this book free online.
[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.