The Deformed Thief, Fashion

'Venus of the Rags,' 1967, 1974. Michelangelo Pistoletto. Photo © Tate, London, 2017.
‘Venus of the Rags,’ 1967, 1974. Michelangelo Pistoletto. Photo © Tate, London, 2017.

THERE ARE ONLY TWO kinds of women in the world of clothing. One buys her clothes made-to-order, the other buys her clothes ready-made. The made-to-order lady frequents Molyneux, Lanvin, Paquin, Chanel, in Paris. In New York she is deposited by her chauffeur ‘on the Plaza,’ at the door of Bergdorf Goodman, or she threads through the traffic of Forty-ninth Street to Hattie Carnegie, less advantageously placed geographically but equally important where fashion is concerned. She may do her shopping out of the traffic, in a grey house on Sixty-seventh Street, Hawes, Inc., or just hit the edge of the mob at the Savoy-Plaza where Valentina holds sway.

In any case, the made-to-order lady can shop and dress to her entire satisfaction. Thousands of skilled craftsmen and women are ready to sew up her clothes. Tens of designers in London and Paris and New York and Los Angeles will work out her special sketches. Hundreds of salespeople are on tap at all hours of the day to watch over her fittings, advise her what not to buy, send shoppers to find that special colour and material which really should be worn in her dining room.

She pays, yes. But it’s worth it a thousand times. Her clothes are her own and correspond to her life as she understands it. She may spend hours fitting them, but in the end they are right.

Meanwhile, the ready-made lady shops. She too may want a special colour to wear in her dining room. She may find that colour after two weeks of hunting, or she may never find it, since very possibly ‘we are not using it this season.’ She may find a really warm and sturdy winter coat which will last her for the next six years and only cost $35 or she may discover that the coat she bought last year is not in fashion this year, that the material was, after all, not all wool.

Millions and millions of women go shopping year after year. They are tall and short, fat and thin, gay and depressed. They may clothe their bodies for the simple purpose of keeping warm or not going naked. They may choose their wardrobes with care for wintering in Palm Beach, or going to the races in Ascot. Their first necessary choice is, can they pay enough to get exactly what they want or are they at the mercy of mass production. Can they buy style or must they buy fashion?

Lanvin and Chanel, Hawes and Valentina, are fundamentally occupied with selling style. The manufacturer and the department store are primarily occupied with selling fashion.

I don’t know when the word fashion came into being, but it was an evil day. For thousands of years people got along with something called style and maybe, in another thousand, we’ll go back to it.

Style is that thing which, being looked back upon after a century, gives you the fundamental feeling of a certain period in history. Style in Greece in 2000 B.C. was delicate outdoor architecture and the clothes which went with it. Style in the Renaissance was an elaborately carved stone cathedral and rich velvet, gold trimmed robes. Style doesn’t change every month or every year. It only changes as often as there is a real change in the point of view and lives of the people for whom it is produced.

Style in 1937 may give you a functional house and comfortable clothes to wear in it. Style doesn’t give a whoop whether your comfortable clothes are red or yellow or blue, or whether your bag matches your shoes. Style gives you shorts for tennis because they are practical. Style takes away the wasp-waisted corset when women get free and active.

If you are in a position to deal with a shop which makes your clothes specially for you, style is what you can have, the right clothes for your life in your epoch, uncompromisingly, at once.

On top of style there has arisen a strange and wonderful creature called fashion. He got started at least as far back as the seventeenth century when a few smart people recognised him for what he was and is. ‘See’st thou not, I say, what a deformed thief this fashion is?’ Mr. Shakespeare demanded in Much Ado About Nothing. But nobody paid any attention.

Now we have the advertising agency and the manufacturer, the department store and the fashion writer all here to tell us that the past, present, and future of clothing depends on fashion, ceaselessly changing.

Manufacturing clothes is the second largest business in the United States. Not one-half of one percent of the population can have its clothing made to order or wants to for that matter.

This means that a large portion of $2,656,242,000 changes hands annually under the eye of that thief, fashion, who becomes more and more deformed with practice. Fashion is a parasite on style. Without style, he wouldn’t exist, but what he does to it is nobody’s business.

Fashion is that horrid little man with an evil eye who tells you that your last winter’s coat may be in perfect physical condition, but you can’t wear it. You can’t wear it because it has a belt and this year ‘we are not showing belts.’

Fashion gets up those perfectly ghastly ideas, such as accessories should match, and proceeds to give you shoes, gloves, bag, and hat all in the same hideous shade of kelly green which he insists is chic this season whether it turns you yellow or not. Fashion is apt to insist one year that you are nobody if you wear flat heels, and then turn right around and throw thousands of them in your face.

Fashion persuades millions of women that comfort and good lines are not all they should ask in clothes. Fashion swings the female population this way and that through the magic expression that ‘they’ are wearing such and such this season and you must do likewise or be ostracised.

Fashion in America says that if Lady Abbington is wearing lace to the races, you should wear it to work in Macy’s basement because you are afterwards going on to Coney Island. If ‘they’ are wearing their hair cut close to their heads and waved over one eye, then you must, too. If you can’t go to the hairdresser every day, that’s just too bad.

One of the most fascinating things about the world of fashion is that practically no one knows who inhabits it or why it exists. There are a few people who know how it works, but they won’t tell. So it just goes on, getting in deeper and deeper, until something like a war or depression slows it up from time to time. But once the war or the depression lets up, off again goes fashion on its mad way.

Some people seem to like it. There are a good many people who don’t, but just accept it as inevitable, throwing away perfectly good old clothes and buying new ones every year. Now and then the public gets angry and writes letters to the press saying they simply won’t wear long skirts, or short ones, as the case may be, but ‘they’ pay very little attention. ‘They’ just go ahead and change the fashion again and say you can’t have blue or you must have brown.

‘They’ decide everything. ‘They’ know whether it is to be pink or green this fall, whether it’s to be short skirts, whether you can wear mink. For years everyone who thinks has gone around at one time or another trying to find out in a desultory sort of way who ‘they’ are.

If they have any sense of humour, they must have a great deal of fun. Fancy how they must have laughed when they once got the last New York shop girl into afternoon clothes in the morning. One of their best stunts was putting all the ladies into Eugenie hats one September, and then whipping them off when all those old feathers had been sold.

In the past they were able to decree that all Fifth Avenue was to be purple in a given week. If you didn’t get a purple dress in those days, you were jailed. They got by so well with the colour changes that a revulsion occurred in the public mind, and for a number of years they haven’t really succeeded in putting across a solid wave of a single colour.

They take inordinate pleasure in telling you your accessories must match and then putting out seven different shades of brown so you can spend two weeks finding the brown shoe that happens to go with your brown coat. They also love to take up ‘influences.’ Sometimes it’s Chinese, other times Mexican. The game those seasons is to try and find the influence in anything but print.

Then, they improve things. The sight of a simple towelling bathrobe infuriates them. They put navy blue stars on it at once. Just as you resign yourself to the navy blue stars, they throw away that pattern and make all the towelling bathrobes with puffed sleeves.

The same group took away all those lovely white bathrooms and made them lavender, and have got out streamline gas stoves. They no sooner taught everyone to go out in low shoes and silk stockings in winter than they decided to try out high shoes again.

There have been rumours about that ‘they’ are people like Greta Garbo, and Mrs. Harrison Williams, exotic theatrical stars and rich society ladies. But nobody can prove it. Greta Garbo is reported to wear whatever her designer chooses to put on her and it is exceedingly doubtful that she really expected everyone to wear sequin day dresses a la Mata Hari.

Mrs. Harrison Williams always appears to be having a very good time in public and to be largely taken up with talking to her dinner partner. Possibly she lies awake nights worrying whether to turn all the world into a chiffon evening dress or thinking up the newest colour for next spring.

Are ‘they’ really the French designers? At a large meeting of New York business women in fashion, Lucien Lelong was answering questions. ‘Monsieur Lelong,’ a lady begged, ‘please tell us what colours will be smart next spring?’ Monsieur Lelong politely replied, ‘I have a hundred shades of blue, a hundred shades of red, and so on. When I design a new collection, I just put my hand on the samples and take anyone that suits my fancy that day.’

Patou, when he was alive and successful around 1932, got out a whole collection of long-waisted dresses. Nobody else followed suit. Nobody bought them. He had to make another collection with natural waists.

There are the dress manufacturers on our Seventh Avenue in New York. Some say they are they.’ Some say those manufacturers just brutally decide they will put the waist-lines up or down as suits their fancy. How did it happen then, in 1930, that the manufacturers on Seventh Avenue made a whole set of clothes with short skirts and suddenly found the skirts had got long while they weren’t looking?

So, a king gets crowned in England and everything must have ermine trimming. But you can’t find any ermine trimming in America that spring. I go to buy some oxfords with Cuban heels and find that they only come with one-inch heels. In 1929 leather-heeled oxfords were too heavy for any American woman to wear. That’s what Delman’s chic shoe shop said. By 1934, leather-heeled oxfords were all over the streets of New York.

I want a navy blue dress in the fall. It is only worn in the spring, the salesgirl says. I want a coat with no fur trimming in the winter of 1930. All winter coats have fur trimming, the salesgirl says.

I want a brown turtle-necked sweater. I start at Macy’s and slowly wend my way through Altman’s and Best’s and Lord and Taylor’s and Saks’ and Bonwit’s. Finally I buy a white one at Fortnum and Mason and send it to be dyed. They say it won’t dye, but it does.

I want a plain knit bathing suit with a skirt. They’re all fancy knits this year and they have no skirts. I want a brassiere and separate pants bathing suit. We don’t have them any more. That was last year.

I want that kind of a bathing suit and I’m going right up and get one made to order by Valentina. I don’t care if it does cost me $200. But if I haven’t got the $200, must I take a printed challis bathing suit this year and like it? Just because they’re wearing them on the Lido, what’s that to me?

Why don’t they ask me, a ready-made lady, what I want? Maybe they’d find out, to their horror, that all I want is a nice deep-crowned riding hat like the one I had ten years ago. Why don’t they find out how much money I have to spend and what I really want to buy for it? Who got up this idea that just because one tenth of one percent of the population needs a certain kind of clothes, I want the same thing? Who decided that just because I was only paying $10.75 for my dress I wanted a bow and a diamond clip added to the neck?

Fashion, my girl, he decided. He doesn’t deal directly with you. He swipes ideas from style, embroiders them to cover up the fact that he left out half the material and only paid 75 cents a yard for the rest. He hires press agents and advertising men to assure you that the bright cellophane wrapper is what counts. Fashion gets $50,000 a year for convincing you. His wife gets her clothes at Hattie Carnegie’s, so why should he worry.

I, Elizabeth Hawes, have sold, stolen, and designed clothes in Paris. I have reported on Paris fashions for newspapers and magazines and department stores. I’ve worked with American buyers in Europe.

In America, I have built up my ivory tower on Sixty-seventh Street in New York. There I enjoy the privilege of making beautiful and expensive clothes to order for those who can afford my wares. I ran the show myself from the business angle for its first four years. I have designed, sold, and publicised my own clothes for nine years.

At the same time, in New York, I designed one year for a cheap wholesale dress house. I’ve designed bags, gloves, sweaters, hats, furs, and fabrics for manufacturers. I’ve worked on promotions of those articles with advertising agencies and department stores.

During the course of all this, I’ve become convinced that ninety-five percent of the business of fashion is a useless waste of time and energy as far as the public is concerned. It serves only to ball up the ready-made customers and make their lives miserable. The only useful purpose that changes in fashion can possibly have is to give a little additional gaiety to life. But by the time you’ve taken off fashion’s bright cellophane wrapper, you usually find not only that fashion is no fun at all, but that even the utility of your purchase has been sacrificed.

Fashion is so shrouded in mystery, so far away and so foreign, so complicated, and so boring when you understand its ways, that it has become a complete anachronism in modern life. One good laugh, and the deformed thief would vanish into the past.

Elizabeth Hawes was an American fashion designer, writer, and critic. This excerpt was originally published in her 1937 book, Fashion is Spinach, a memoir.