… [Eleanor Lambert] realized that the American fashion industry, along with the individual designers deserved to be treated as equals on the world stage. From that moment on, this idea would become her driving passion. (John Tiffany, Eleanor Lambert: Still Here, Pointed Leaf Press, c2011: p.19)
On Thursday February 2, 2012 we are hosted a lecture with fashion historian John A. Tiffany who discussed his book, Eleanor Lambert: Still Here (Pointed Leaf Press, c2011). Eleanor Lambert, a publicist, changed fashion history and put America on the map in a world dominated by European designers.
If you love fashion and you are not familiar with Eleanor Lambert, you should be. She revolutionized the American fashion industry and championed it as an art form. She arrived in New York in 1925, started out designing book covers for Franklin Spear, but found she had a talent in the realm of publicity. So she followed her instinct and became a publicist for major artists, such as Salvador Dali, Isamu Noguchi, and Jackson Pollock. During this time she created the Art Dealers Association of America and the Parke-Bernet Galleries auction house (Sotheby’s acquired Parke-Bernet in 1964), as well as helping to establish the New York Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
In 1932 Miss Lambert became the first fashion publicist when she represented the fashion designer Annette Simpson. Back then, there were very few American couturiers who produced original designs and there was little recognition of the names of American designers by fashion editors. By and large, American fashion was based on the styles that came from the Paris runways. In the April 15, 1933 issue of Vogue magazine, in the article “New York Couture,” the author writes:
“Will the American designers come into their own? Will we place a moral ban on French ideas and develop a new national style?”
Department stores such as Bergdorf Goodman and Saks-Fifth Avenue employed designers who made originals but these were still interpretations of Paris styles and carried the store labels.
Of course, there were exceptions –
- In the 1920’s the fashion couturiere Valentina opened and operated businesses in New York under the names “Valentena,” and “Valentina & Sonia,” however both closed before 1928 when Valentina Gown, Inc. was formed, and which operated until 1957.
- In 1921 Nettie Rosenstein opened one of the first American high fashion ready- to-wear dress houses in New York that was run under her own name.
- In 1928 Hattie Carnegie established her own line of ready-to-wear designs made in her own factory and was one of the first American designers to put her own name on a dress label.
- Also in 1928, couturiere Elizabeth Hawes, with Rosemary Harden, formed Hawes-Harden in New York, which soon became Hawes, Inc after Harden left the business.
- In 1930’s Lord & Taylor’s vice president and director of the store’s style bureau Dorothy Shaver audaciously showcased American designers Elizabeth Hawes, Annette Simpson, and Edith Reuss in a fashion show and in the store’s Fifth Ave. windows. Shaver followed with another promotion of American designers Clara Potter and Muriel King.
By 1939 department stores, beauty brands, and perfumes joined Miss Lambert’s client list, along with hotels, art galleries, nightclubs, restaurants, and more fashion designers (American and European). In 1939 she was asked to be the press director of the New York Dress Institute.
It is important to note that during World War II European fashion studios shut down and Paris temporarily lost its influence in the fashion world. Luckily, across the pond in the U.S, the fashion industry was not affected, and Miss Lambert saw this as an opportunity to take the American fashion designers out of the shadows and promote them on the world stage. As a result, in 1940 Miss Lambert appropriated the Paris-based best dressed list, which had ceased during WWII, and renamed it the International Best-Dressed List. This list was under her guidance until 2002. Then it was transferred to Vanity Fair , which is now in charge of the selection. In January 1943 she started Fashion Press Week from which today’s Fashion Week is descended (the French, Italians, and British asked her to start their own Fashion Week after the war). During the same year her American Fashion Critics’ Awards, which came to be known as the Coty Awards, was inaugurated.
Eleanor Lambert transformed the fashion world, both in the United States and abroad. Starting in the 1940’s she hired black models for the Coty Awards, Fashion Press Week, and other prestigious fashion venues, and encouraged her clients (American and European) to do the same for their runaway shows. During the 1950’s and 1960’s she brought American fashion to many other corners of the world, such as Brazil, Germany, Japan, and the U.S.S.R. In order to help improve Soviet-American relations she helped to produce the 1959 American National Exhibition (Exposition) in Moscow sponsored by the U.S. State Department and Department of Commerce. On exhibit were home appliances, electronics, art, and, of course — fashion. Those who know the history of U.S. and Soviet relations might remember this event as the place where Nixon and Khrushchev argued about personal freedoms — better known as the “Kitchen Debate.” Her fashion show was a hit and Miss Lambert was invited back to the U.S.S.R. and produced another fashion event in 1967.
Eleanor Lambert was taking on Washington in the 1960’s by championing fashion as an art form. In December of 1962 she created the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), which endorsed fashion as an art and expression of culture. She wrote “For the first time in the history of American fashion, leaders from all branches of creative design across the country have banded together for the purpose of furthering the position of fashion design as a recognized branch of art and culture.” And so the campaign to include fashion as an art in the National Arts Legislation began. She testified for the Special Subcommittee on the Arts of the Committee on Labor and Public Welfare on Oct. 31, 1963. After the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965 passed, she served on the first 26-member National Council of the Arts.
Following up on her victory with Congress, she produced the first fashion show at the White House. Lady Bird Johnson hosted this event on February 29, 1968. It was billed as “Discover America” and included patriotic red, blue and white themes.
In 1973 she helped to raise funds for the restoration project at Versailles, France, by producing the Franco-American Fashion show. The American designers Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, Anne Klein, Stephen Burrows and Halston and French designers Yves St. Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Hubert de Givenchy, Emanuel Ungaro, and Marc Bohan for Christian Dior, showed at this event. Although it was not billed as a battle between New York and Paris, it is apparent that this was a deliberate move. The American designers outshined the French designs and fashion history was made — New York began its rise as the new fashion world capital.
Eleanor Lambert came to be known as the Empress of Seventh Avenue, continuing to follow her passion promoting fashion and the arts up until her death in 2003 at the age of 100. As I learned about her life and all she created, I wholeheartedly agree with John Tiffany- She is Still Here!
And in the Business Reference Alcove of the Science and Business Reading Room we have an exhibit on the Fashion Industry and created a Fashion Industry guide to accompany the exhibit. This guide highlights resources related to the fashion and apparel industries, including books, journals, and databases available at the Library of Congress.