Fashion maverick Elizabeth Hawes was not a conformist

A successful writer, union organizer, and WWII factory worker, the Ridgewood native designed transcendent clothing that has been held in the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection, now part of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

She was a fashion maverick, says Bettina Berch, who wrote Hawes’ biography in 1988. Radical by design.

Yet Hawes’ work was fundamental. It never went mainstream. “It was tragic that she never really got the satisfaction of her own life and the credit the rest of the world is owed to her,” Berch said.

Born in 1903, Hawes grew up like a big fish in a small pond, says Berch. His family belonged decidedly to the upper middle class. Her mother, Henrietta Hawes, shaped Ridgewood through disproportionate social influence. When Hawes attended Ridgewood High School, her mother became the first woman elected to the city’s school board. The council later named a South Ridgewood elementary school in his honor.

“Her mother was a difficult act to follow,” Berch said. “She was both well educated and progressive.”

The young Hawes nonetheless took it a step further with progressive beliefs that were beyond the constructions of her Depression-era society. A follower of sexual fluidity, “she was as committed to the liberation of men as of women,” said Berch.

Promotional photo of clothing designer Elizabeth Hawes, circa 1946. Hawes was also a newspaper columnist, author, union organizer and women's liberation activist.

Rare for the time, it emphasized comfort and utility in dress, even if it meant nudity or cross-dressing. Fashion should be limitless on many levels, Hawes wrote. Concretely, Hawes advised never to buy a garment without “doing all the movements that you will use when you really wear it”.

“The things that we now accept as OK were difficult for people of his day to take seriously,” Berch said. “She never really cared about approval. Instead, she lived according to an internal compass.

From a young age, Hawes opposed fashion and gender norms. She placed more importance on style and self-expression. In his most famous book, 1938’s Spinach is fashion, Hawes wrote that she was “very disgusted to be forced to wear long legged underwear to dance school.” Even child, the woolen leggings “deeply offended [her] sense of chic.

Hawes’ sensitivity intensified later. The mere sight of an ugly dress elicited a visceral response. “My spine is twitching and I’m mentally vomiting,” she wrote.

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After high school, Hawes followed in his mother’s footsteps and attended Vassar College in New York City. She majored in economics, designed costumes for school plays, and apprenticed in New York at Bergdorf Goodman. After graduating in 1925, she moved to Paris. There, in an underground dressmaker’s shop, Hawes made fakes Chanel as a copy stylist by carefully duplicating the originals.

She also showed her characteristic versatility. She sketched originals, used her Parisian insight to draw cables for The New Yorker as a mysterious journalist nicknamed the “Parisite”, worked as a buyer for an American department store and was United States trade commissioner in Rome.

After her first foray into Europe, Hawes returned to New York in 1928 to start the Hawes-Harden fashion house. The label has produced dresses and decorative pieces with famous collaborators such as Alexander Calder and Isamu Noguchi.

The untimely sewing store did not withstand the Depression. Hawes took his dresses to Paris and then to Russia in 1935 with the filmmaker Joseph Losey. Hawes and Losey married in 1937 and had a son, Gavrik Losey, the following year, when Fashion is Spinach has been published.

The insider perspective on fashion was his most famous work, but Hawes wrote several other books on social norms: Men can take it, anything but love; A complete compendium of the rules of female behavior from birth to death and Why do women cry / girls with keys, among others. She has published nine books in total and written dozens of columns for the New York Afternoon Newspaper. PM.

Berch first discovered Hawes while teaching economics at Barnard College in Manhattan. Trying to better understand women in the workplace, Berch found Hawes’ book Girls with keys in a second-hand bookstore. The book details Hawes’ experience working at Wright Aeronautical Corp. Plant 7. in Wood-Ridge, and the occasional sexism women were supposed to endure.

Hawes took the job at the massive Wood-Ridge aircraft factory to learn firsthand about the plight of female workers. Unlike other WWII-era working diaries, Hawes’s sounded authentic, Berch says. It was pleasantly different.

“She talked about real things that were going on, like race riots on the bus to get to work and what to do about child care,” Berch said. “These weren’t things written by the Office of War Information.”

When the war ended, Hawes became a union organizer for United Auto Workers. She considered herself a feminist and a socialist. She is nevertheless accused of being a communist and animator of the populace.

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Hawes’ FBI file identified her as both a Fifth Avenue socialite and a high-ranking radical linked to a Tennessee communist cell, Berch says. She was only the first. There was another Elizabeth Hawes. For a while, the two shared an FBI name and file, Berch says.

Hawes and Losey divorced in November 1944. She spent time in the Caribbean before returning to New York to open a new clothing store in 1948. The Madison Avenue boutique reissued models which she recreated in-house afterwards. have extracted the originals from his collection at the Brooklyn Museum. .

Hawes took fashion – and its culture, ethics, and economy – seriously. She believed that being perfectly dressed “directly contributes to that personal peace that religion is ultimately meant to confer” and that the collusion on the catwalks that determined what was produced, when and for whom led to appalling trends.

While style may be timeless, fashion is rooted in its profit-making seasons. Fashion, as Hawes wrote, is “that horrible, evil-eyed little man who tells you that your coat from last winter might be in perfect physical condition, but you can’t wear it.”

After leaving New York, Hawes moved to St. Croix and then to California. She returned to Manhattan, where in 1967 the Fashion Institute of Technology held a retrospective showcasing her work. Even then, the applause was fleeting. She died four years later from cirrhosis of the liver at the city’s Chelsea hotel. She was 67 years old.

David Zimmer is a local reporter for For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

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