Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


A Designing Maverick

By Merle RubinMerle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor. / February 8, 1989



RADICAL BY DESIGN: THE LIFE AND STYLE OF ELIZABETH HAWES by Bettina Berch, New York: E.P. Dutton. 214 pp. $19.95

Skip to next paragraph

``One morning in the late 30s at the corner of the new Tiffany building on Fifth Avenue, the usual uptown crowd flowing, men in navy and dark gray and homburgs, women girdled, lipsticked and highheeled, Hawes appeared swinging along in a full skirt, no hat and (incredible) no lipstick. A dinosaur could not have made a more startling sight....''

- from ``Radical by Design''

A woman whose bold sense of style led her to denounce the folly of mere fashion, an avant-garde designer who wrote best-selling books and articles for the popular press, Elizabeth Hawes (1903-71) sought to liberate women - and men - from the dictates of modishness and the constraints of uncomfortable custom.

Graduating from Vassar, she set out for Paris in the mid-1920s, where she witnessed the Byzantine workings of the couture industry and hobnobbed with artists and musicians like Alexander Calder, Joan Miro, and Virgil Thompson. With a little financial help from well-heeled Vassar friends, Hawes started her own dress design company in New York in the unpropitious year 1929. In the decade that followed, she did her best to revolutionize American clothing in accordance with her belief that clothes should conform to the body, not vice versa.

WHEN she wasn't designing clothes, she was writing about style and people's attitudes. Her best-selling book ``Fashion Is Spinach'' (1938) advised American women not to swallow distasteful or unflattering clothes simply because ``fashion'' decreed them. But many of her ideas - bright-colored, lightweight clothes for men; loose, natural clothing for women that could be worn without foundation garments; the so-called ``death of fashion'' giving consumers rather than Paris designers the ``right'' to decide what to wear - did not really take hold until the 1960s.

Hawes's iconoclasm was not limited to fashion. During World War II, she worked briefly at an airplane manufacturing plant, then went on to serve as a union organizer for the United Auto Workers in Detroit. Along the way, she managed to accumulate an FBI file on her radical activities.

Disgusted by the ``red-baiting'' atmosphere of the postwar years and by the exaggerated ``femininity'' of the New Look and the back-to-the-kitchen ethos it seemed to embody, Hawes fell out of sight in '50s America.

She was somewhat rediscovered in the '60s, when she and her young friend Rudi Gernreich (of topless bathing suit renown) were honored by a retrospective show of their designs at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology.

There's no doubt that Elizabeth Hawes, her striking designs, and her interesting attempt to fuse politics and aesthetics are well worth recalling to our attention. Bettina Berch's biography contains valuable original research and is written in a direct, no-nonsense style that might well have appealed to Hawes herself. Berch communicates a sense of Hawes's importance without making exaggerated claims on her behalf.

YET, while a massive biographical study may not have been called for, this book is a little too scrappy. To take a simple, but telling, instance: Berch mentions that Hawes's book ``Why Women Cry'' (1943) describes 11 female ``types,'' but Berch goes on to list only five of them. Whether she is discussing Hawes's designs, her politics, or her two failed marriages, Berch is short on description and short on analysis, although her commentary is acute as far as it goes.

According to Berch, Hawes had to contend with a left unable to ``distinguish between status and style'' and suspicious of beautiful things as somehow ``bourgeois.''

This succinct, rather tantalizing book is a reminder that matters of aesthetics - style, design, beauty, and pleasure - are not always frivolous, but have a place in politics because they have a place in our lives.