Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Focus On Fashion: Hattie Carnegie

We continue our look at the American designers with a woman who set the gold standard for American fashion during the War and post war years.  She successfully combined her love of Haute couture French fashion, furniture and accessories with American ingenuity and produced lines of stunningly beautiful high end fashions for her high class clientele.  She continued this successful marriage after the war by producing a moderately priced line of clothing for the American housewife who wanted that high end style.  She is of course, the one and only Hattie Carneige.

Hattie Carnegie, was born Henrietta Kanengeiser on March 15, 1889 in Vienna, Austria.  She was one of the premier dress designers of the 1930s. Carnegie started her career as a milliner. Her father, an artist and designer, introduced her to the world of fashion and design, and by age fifteen she had found work trimming hats. Five years later she opened a shop on East Tenth Street in New York called Carnegie - Ladies Hatter. The shop was successful, and within a few years she moved to the Upper West Side, where she took up dress design. However, she never learned to sew. While she couldn’t sew she had a feeling about clothes and a personality to convey her ideas to the people who were to work them out." She changed the name of her business in 1914 to Hattie Carnegie, Inc., and by the 1920s was the toast of the fashion world from her new location in the Upper East Side at 42 East 49th street.

Carnegie's belief in simplicity fit perfectly with the streamlining of 1930s design. She believed that "simple, beautiful clothes … enhance the charm of the woman who wears them. If you have a dress that is too often admired, be suspicious of it." The dress, she insisted, must fit and not overpower the woman who wears it. She was devoted to Paris fashion and made regular buying trips throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Yet while she was a self-declared Francophile, she adapted French style to American tastes by offering a blend of style and comfort that suited many fashion-conscious Americans who still wanted their clothes to have a French flair.

Carnegie's expensive original designer clothes were out of reach for many Americans, but this did not limit her influence on American design. Hers were among some of the most widely copied designs by popularly priced designers. As the decade wore on, Carnegie added a modestly priced, ready-to-wear line of clothing that proved to be the most lucrative of her enterprises. She made her modestly priced clothes more available to the average consumer by permitting some department stores to carry the new line, breaking from her usual practice of selling her clothes at her own shop. This practice secured her influence over both haute couture and popular wear.

Throughout the 1930s Carnegie's booming business attracted several young designers who trained under her. Norman Norell, Claire McCardell, Paula Trigére, Pauline De Rothschild, and Jean Louis, among others, spent years working under her. As her business grew, so did her interests. She added accessories, perfumes, handkerchiefs, silk hosery, and cosmetics. By the 1940s Carnegie was well established as one of America's top designers.

For decades Hattie Carnegie's personal taste and fashion sense influenced the styles worn by countless American women. Whether they bought her imported Paris models, the custom designs, the ready-to-wear collections, or the mass market copies of her work, women welcomed Carnegie's discreet good taste as a guarantee of sophistication. Carnegie's business ability and fashion acumen enabled her to build a small millinery shop into a wholesale and retail clothing and accessory empire and made her name synonymous with American high fashion for almost half a century.

Carnegie's place in fashion history was assured not because of her own designs, but because of her talent for choosing or refining the designs of others. Between the World Wars, the list of couturiers whose models she imported included Lanvin, Vionnet, Molyneux, and Mainbocher—classic stylists—but also select creations from Chanel, Patou, Schiaparelli, and Charles James.  Carnegie claimed that she had a three-year unauthorized exclusive on selling Vionnet models in the early 1920s, a few years before Vionnet started selling "to the trade."

The Custom Salon was generally considered to be the heart of the Hattie Carnegie operation, since it was with made-to-order fashion that Carnegie began. The focus of her business was to interpret European style for American consumers.  Her approach to fashion emphasized polish in every outfit rather than minute design details. Norman Norell, who was with Carnegie from 1928 to 1940 (primarily as a ready-to-wear designer), remarked that he often worked from models that Miss Carnegie had brought back from Paris. He could legitimately claim, however, that he had imprinted his own signature on his designs for the firm, and it is often possible to make an informed attribution of Hattie Carnegie styles to her other designers.
Carnegie was already established as a style setter by the time she added the ready-to-wear division to her company in the 1920s. Vogue magazine included her tips and fashion forecasts in a monthly column called "Vogue points from Hattie Carnegie". At the Hattie Carnegie salon, a customer could accessorize her day and evening ensembles with furs, hats, handbags, gloves, lingerie, jewelry, and even cosmetics and perfume— everything, in fact—but shoes.

 The Carnegie customer was neither girlish nor matronly, but possessed of a certain decorum. Even the casual clothing in the ready-to-wear departments was elegant rather than playful. The Carnegie Suit, usually an ensemble with dressmaker details in luxury fabrics, traditionally opened her seasonal showings. She stressed the importance of black as a wardrobe basic, both for day and evening, but was also famous for a shade known as "Carnegie blue." Perhaps Carnegie's preference for 18th-century furnishings in her home relates to the devotion of formality so clearly expressed in her business.

During World War II Carnegie was an impressive bearer of the standard of the haute couture. French style leadership was unavailable, and designs from her custom salon took pride of place in fashion magazines and on the stage.  Carnegie's leadership was also important to other fashion industries. She had always used fabrics from the best American textile companies, and continued to patronize specialty firms. Only after Carnegie's death did the company claim to use exclusively imported fabrics.

Hattie Carnegie enjoyed tremendous success throughout her career but the proudest moment came when she designed the Women's Army Corps (WAC) uniform in 1950. They were adopted for wear on New Year's Day 1951. On 1 June 1952, Hattie received the Congressional Medal of Freedom for the WAC uniform design and for her many other charitable and patriotic contributions. The WAC design was so timelessly elegant that it was still in use for women's U.S. Army uniforms in 1968.

Hattie Carnegie died on February 22, 1956; the fashion empire she had built survived into the 1970s, but in 1965 the custom salon was closed and the company concentrated on wholesale businesses. The informal youth culture of the 1960s and 1970s was ill-suited to the type of clothing and client that had made Hattie Carnegie's reputation. The strength of her personal identification with the company made it difficult for it to succeed without her, and it quickly lost ground to the younger designers who emerged in the 1960s.
Hattie Carnegie designs are in the collection holdings of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; and at the Museum of Lifestyle & Fashion History in Boynton Beach, Florida.


  1. Wonderful Raymond. I love reading your designer articles, and am looking forward to more in the future!

  2. This is quite thrilling for me as my mother was a milliner for Hattie Carnegie at her NYC location.

    Thank you so much for this wonderful article!!!


  3. My great aunt, Georgia Ellis Hofmann, was a model for Hattie Carnegie in the 1930s.


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