Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Focus On Fashion: Norman Norell

I have been away for quite awhile handling some personal issues and I am glad to be back with some more vintage fashion articles.  I'd like to start out the New Year with a few articles on American fashion designers that often get overlooked.  I'd like to start with a designer who was one of the first American designers I was aware of, only because my mom always wore his perfume.  Norman Norell

Norman Norell was born Norman David Levinson on April 20, 1900 in Noblesville, Indiana the son of a haberdasher.  From early childhood he had an ambition to become an artist. After spending a short period at military school during World War I, he studied illustration at Parsons School of Design before completing his studies in fashion design at the Pratt Institute.

In 1922, he joined the New York studio of Paramount Pictures where he designed clothes for Gloria Swanson and other stars of silent movies. He then worked as a costume designer on Broadway, making the costumes for the Ziegfeld Follies and the Cotton Club, as well as for the Brooks Costume Company and for wholesale dress manufacturer Charles Armour.  In 1928, he was hired by Hattie Carnegie where he adapted Paris design models for the American market. Norell learned all about meticulous cut, fit, and quality fabrics. Regular trips to Paris exposed him to the standards of couture that made French clothes the epitome of high fashion. Norell had the unique ability to translate the characteristics of couture into American ready-to-wear. He inspected each garment individually, in the tradition of a couturier, and was just as demanding in proper fabrication and finish.

 In 1941, Norell left Hattie Carnegie when Anthony Traina invited him to form the fashion company Traina-Norrell, with Traina looking after the business side and Norell the fashion side.  In 1943, Norell won a Coty Fashion Award and became a critic at Pratt Institute fashion department. He won the award again in 1951, 1956, 1958 and 1960. Norell’s hallmark soon became simple, well-made clothes that would last and remain fashionable for many years.  Norell became the first American designer to win the respect of Parisian couturiers.  He gained a reputation for flattering design and his clothes lasted, and their classicism made them timeless.  By 1944, Norell had launched chemise dresses, evening dresses, fur coats, sequined evening sheaths, fur slacks and empire waisted dresses.  

Norell developed certain characteristics of his designs early on and they remained constant throughout his career. Wool jersey shirtwaist dresses with simple bowed collars were a radical departure from the splashy floral daydresses of the 1940s. World War II restrictions on yardages and materials coincided with Norell's penchant for spare silhouettes, evoking his favorite period, the 1920s. Long before Paris was promoting the chemise in the 1950s, Norell was offering short, straight, low-waisted shapes. For evening, he looked to the flashy glamour of his days designing costumes for vaudeville.

Glittering paillettes, which were not rationed, would be splashed on evening skirts which were paired with sweater tops for comfort in unheated rooms. Later, the lavish use of all-out glamour sequins evolved into Norell's signature shimmering "mermaid" evening dresses, formfitting, round-necked and short-sleeved. The round neckline, plain instead of the then-popular draped neckline, became one of the features of Norell's designs of which he was most proud. "I hope I have helped women dress more simply," was his goal. He used revealing bathing suit necklines for evening as well, with sable trim or jeweled buttons for contrast. Variations on these themes continued throughout the years, even after trouser suits became a regular part of Norell's repertoire.

Striking in their simplicity, Norell suits would skim the body, making the wearer the focus of attention rather than the clothes. Daytime drama came from bold, clear colors such as red, black, beige, bright orange or pale blue, punctuated by large, plain contrasting buttons. Stripes, dots, and checks were the only patterns, although Norell was credited with introducing leopard prints in the 1940s, again, years before they became widespread in use. His faithful clients hailed his clothes as some of the most comfortable they had ever worn.

An exposure to men's wear in his father's haberdashery no doubt led to the adaptation of menswear practicality. An outstanding example of this esthetic was the sleeveless jacket over a bowed blouse and slim woolen skirt, developed after Norell became aware of the comfort of his own sleeveless vest worn for work.  Norell created a sensation with the culotte-skirted wool flannel day suit with which he launched his own independent label after the death of Traina in 1960. His sophisticated clientéle welcomed the ease of movement allowed by this daring design. As the 1960s progressed Norell presented another masculine-influenced garment, the jumpsuit, but in soft or luxurious fabrics for evening. Just as durability and excellent workmanship were integral to the best menswear, so they were to Norell's clothes.  Men's dress was traditionally slow to change and Norell embraced this tradition by staying with his same basic designs, continually refining them over the years.  What he liked was frequently copied, both domestically and overseas. The short, gored, ice skating skirt was copied by Paris.  Aware of piracy in the fashion business, Norell offered working sketches of the culotte suit free of charge to the trade to ensure that at least his design would be copied correctly. This integrity earned him a place as the foremost American designer of his time. Unlike most ready-to-wear that would be altered at the last moment for ease of manufacture, no changes were allowed after Norell had approved a garment. 

Norell promoted American fashion as founder and president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, but also by giving fledgling milliners their start in his black-tie, special event fashion shows. Halston and Adolfo designed hats for Norell, for, as in couture, Norell insisted upon unity of costume to include accessories.

Known as the "Dean of American Fashion," Norell was the first to have his name on a dress label, and the first to produce a successful American fragrance, Norell, with a designer name. Some of his clothes can be seen in the films, such as The Sainted Devil, That Touch of Mink and The Wheeler Dealers. Show business personalities and social leaders throughout the country treasured their "Norells" for years.

Norell was a founder and president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) the governing body of the American fashion industry and was inducted into the Coty Hall of Fame in 1956.  Norell  died in New York on October 25, 1972.

Today, he is considered by many in the world of fashion to be one of the foremost fashion designers in US history, on a par with the legendary French couturiers.  The house of Norman Norell has continued under the creative direction of Patrick Michael Hughes.

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