It was my distinct pleasure and good fortune to visit the current Exhibition on Norman Norell at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (MFIT) in New York City last week. For those of you not familiar with this mid-century American designer, you may be surprised to learn of his enduring influence on, and remarkable contributions to American fashion and glamour. He also, in his extensive and versatile body of work, employed the finest couture techniques, making his clothes still the envy of designers and those of us who strive for excellence in our fashion sewing.
Norell: Dean of American Fashion opened on February 9, 2018 and will close on April 14th. Guest Curator and designer Jeffrey Banks and Deputy Director of MFIT, Patricia Mears, collaborated on this Exhibition. Included are examples from his entire career; however, the Exhibition focuses for the most part on his final, spectacular 12 years, from 1960 – 1972. Norell (1900-1972) left his native Indiana to pursue his interest in illustration and fashion design in New York. He worked under Hattie Carnegie, and then at the beginning of World War II he began a partnership with Anthony Traina, the label for which is the well-known Traina-Norell designation. It was in 1960 that Norell started his own eponymous line of clothing, and it was during this period, up to his untimely death in 1972, that he set his real mark on American fashion.
To all of you I commend the MFIT Exhibition website for learning more about Norell’s life and the evolution of his body of work, including a fascinating video presentation by Exhibition Curator Jeffrey Banks. (Be sure to click on “explore the Exhibition website” which will lead you to some excellent content.) It was with this background knowledge that I entered the Exhibition, knowing I wanted to view it on two levels – 1) as a dazzling display of some of the most beautiful fashions ever assembled, and 2) as an opportunity to see up close some of the construction details, style lines, and elegant touches in his fashions, serving as inspiration for my own fashion sewing.
The Exhibit is physically divided into two areas, the first of which serves as a guide to his trademark themes, each with a small grouping of fashions. I was immediately smitten with this selection of LBDs:
All of these dresses have a timeless appearance, making them as stylish today as when they were designed. From left to right, #1 Label: Norman Norell New York. Black sleeveless bodice with skirt and satin sash, 1963. wool jersey, wool twill. Lent by Kenneth Pool [a major lender to the Exhibit.];
#2 Label: Traina-Norell New York. Black cocktail ensemble, 1950. silk chiffon, silk satin. MFIT, Gift in memory of Miriam Abrams; #3 Label: Norman Norell New York. Black dress with belt, 1962-1963. Wool, leather. MFIT, Gift of Mortimer Soloman.
As a way of illustrating the impeccable couture construction for which Norell fashions are known, this “inside-out” dress was displayed.
Click on the photo for a closer look.
It was all I could do to keep from reaching over to see more of it. Noted on the caption were ”the hand-picked zipper and extra wide seam allowance, the deep hem … edged with bias-cut silk so that it is softly defined yet sturdy. Furthermore, the neckline and armholes are minimally interfaced to give shape without impeding movement, and they are under-pressed in order to hide the seams.”
The larger gallery of the Exhibit practically took my breath away when I entered. The large center stage is resplendent with examples of his famous eveningwear, including his sequined “mermaid” dresses.
The low light in the Exhibition gallery only added to the ambience and allure of these creations.
Around the perimeter of the gallery were featured many, many of his glorious coats, capes and dress suits, as well as dresses. I snapped this photo of one of his trademark sailor dresses to show the hand-picked zipper and the large patch pockets applied by hand (note the provenance on this dress in the caption):
Label: Traina-Norell New York. Off-white sailor dress with navy collar and red tie, circa 1957. Linen. MFIT, Gift of Lauren Bacall.
There were so many terrific examples of Norell’s vibrant use of color, including this coral cape from 1962.
Label: Norell. Coral double breasted cape, 1962. Wool melton. Lent by Kenneth Pool.
And I could not take my eyes away from this combination of off-white evening gown with a red bolero jacket and peacock blue sash from 1968.
The beautiful shape of the jacket, with those amazing buttons and bound buttonholes, sets off the sash to perfection. Label: Norman Norell New York. Off-white evening gown with red bolero jacket and peacock blue sash, 1968. Cotton organdy, wool, silk taffeta. Lent by Kenneth Pool.
Another brilliantly hued ensemble is this pink evening coat with matching skirt and blouse from 1964. Note the rhinestone buttons, the beautiful bound buttonholes, the angled pockets, and the lovely seaming detail of the high yoke on the coat which descends into the sleeves.
Label: Norell, Norman Norell New York. Pink evening coat with matching skirt and blouse, 1964. Wool, rhinestone buttons. MFIT, Gift of Lauren Bacall.
Norell was known for his cone and wedge-shaped coats, of which this purple one is an excellent example. Note the spread of the descending buttons on this coat:
Photography was permitted, although flash photography was not, so my pictures do not do justice to many of these fashions. Label: Norell. Purple cone shaped double breasted coat with Peter Pan collar, 1966. Wool melton. Lent by Kenneth Pool.
This coat and pants ensemble from 1970 is set off beautifully by its wide belt:
Label: Norell. Coat and pants ensemble, 1970. Wool herringbone, leather. Lent by Kenneth Pool.
The collar is absolutely stunning. And those bound buttonholes are a work of art in that heavy wool herringbone weave.
Norell used the talented stitchers of the garment worker’s union to make his clothing.
While I am writing about coats (one of my favorite subjects!), I want to show you details from two which help to illustrate the quality and finesse for which Norell’s fashions are known. First is this pocket detail from an off-white coat with black collar, 1962-1965.
Label: Norell. Off-white coat with black collar, 1962-1965. Wool and velvet. MFIT, Gift of Mrs. Jane Albert
The right edge of the flap is angled slightly to follow the side seam line, a subtle touch which gives it a graceful appearance.
Second is another pocket detail on a beige coat with pilgrim collar from 1968:
Label: Norell. Beige coat with pilgrim collar, 1968. Wool. MFIT, Gift from the collection of Margery J. Davidson, lovingly donated by her son Harold S. Graham.
The pocket is an extension of a princess seam, beautifully angled. And more shaping is apparent to the left of the full-length seam, giving this coat such elegant and refined lines.
Seeing this following grouping of dresses and jackets gave me a new appreciation of the concept of “less is more.” According to the caption, Norell “chose to trim his day and evening wear with mink, fox, and sable. The judicious use of this expensive and sensuous material elevated the glamour quotient of his restrained daywear.”
From left to right: #1 Label: Norell. Pale oatmeal midi dress and bolero jacket, 1967. Wool, crystal fox. Lent by Kenneth Pool. #2 Label: Norell. Pale peach jacket and black gown, 1966. Brushed wool, fox, sheer jersey. Lent by Kenneth Pool. #3 Label: Norell. Red and black check suit, 1962. Wool, black fox, leather. Lent by Kenneth Pool.
One more Little Black Dress has the most beautifully placed buttons:
Label: Norman Norell New York. Black dress with jeweled buttons, 1965. Wool crepe. Lent by Kenneth Pool.
I loved the caption which (partially) stated: “Deceptively simple, Norell’s dresses were visually quiet but strategically constructed… to enhance a woman’s body.”
I could go on and on as there is so much more to celebrate about this remarkably talented “Dean of American Fashion.” Fortunately, the Exhibition is accompanied by a book, titled: Norell: Master of American Fashion, by Jeffrey Banks and Doria de la Chapelle. Published by Rizzoli, the book is lavishly illustrated and beautifully presented, both in content and inspiration. I commend it to you.
In closing, on a personal note, I cannot help but think back to 1972, the year I graduated from college and the year Norman Norell died. So much has changed in the world of fashion and fashion sewing since those heady years. Seeing an exhibition like this one is a lovely reminder of the true timelessness of quality and restrained elegance, providing endless inspiration to those of us who dream and sew.
What Do You Think of Pockets?
Do you love pockets and add them to your sewn creations wherever you can? Would you be happy never to have to sew another pocket? Do you tolerate them in a garment, preferring to do without if possible? Many people have very strong opinions about pockets or the lack thereof. I think those of us who sew are among those with the strong opinions, primarily because we have it in our power to add them or delete them. My personal mantra on pockets is “Let’s see if we can do without them, unless we can’t.”
I generally divide my thoughts about pockets into three categories: those in dress pants (slacks), those in dresses and skirts, and those in dressier coats and jackets. (A little caveat is probably useful here before I get any further. Yes, jeans should have pockets, as should hiking and/or activewear pants and shorts. And absolutely, pockets are part of the functionality of active outdoor coats and jackets and vests. Those categories are not part of this discussion.)
It was over two decades ago when I first started thinking about the dilemma pockets in slacks present. I had just purchased a navy blue wool flannel, dressy pair of slim pants, which fit well and were flattering. There were two welt pockets on either side of the front which were basted closed, as is the custom in better clothes (leaving it up to the purchasing customer to remove the basting.) I left the basting in and preserved the slim silhouette of the slacks. Had I removed the basting, the front, I am sure, would have “pooched” out at those two spots and, well, not done my tummy any favors. Once I started buying vintage patterns a decade ago, I began to notice the slacks in the patterns from the 1950s generally were pocketless. (I have long thought fashion and style in the decade of the 1950s was at its zenith, both in elegance and in silhouette, which is a topic for another discussion.) Here a few examples of patterns from the 1950s:
In my mind, pockets in dress slacks are superfluous at best, detrimental at worst, and just unnecessary. Although I rarely make pants and slacks, I have yet to put a pocket in any of them.
Dresses and skirts are a bit more complicated. Fuller skirts often provide the perfect camouflage for in-seam pockets. I have sewn at least three such styles, the patterns for which included pockets in the side seams. Interestingly, two of them were vintage Diane von Furstenberg patterns from the 1970s; the other is a more recent Vogue shirt dress.
There was a charming article appearing this summer in a Weekend Edition of The Wall Street Journal by author Jasmine Guillory and her “perfect dress” which, alas, has pockets. (Check her website here to read the article under “About”.) Here is what she wrote, “The only element that mars this dress’s perfection is its pockets. This might be a controversial statement, but I don’t like dresses with pockets. They pooch at my hips, even when empty, and if you put something in them, it’s worse…. What’s this great need for dresses with pockets?” She goes on to say she regularly takes her dresses with pockets to the dry cleaner to have the pockets removed. (Alas, again! Her dry cleaner closed during the pandemic, meaning that her “perfect dress” still has its pockets, making it “almost perfect.”)
But what about slimmer silhouettes? In-seam pockets could cause the same “gapping” situation, which begs the question “Would you put anything in those pockets which would cause that pocket to gap even more? Probably not. I would place my hankie or my cell phone or lip stick in my handbag, not in my pocket – and that goes for fuller skirts as well. (Besides, like Jasmine Guillory, I am quite smitten with handbags.)
However, what about in-seam pockets which are part of the design? Here is a notable example:
And then, of course, applied pockets are often part of the design, but not really intended for practical use. Take a look at this evening gown:
You might be able to tell I have decided I am not so keen on pockets in skirts and dresses either – UNLESS they are integral to the design.
Which brings us to coats and jackets. I think one’s first reaction to this category would be “Well, of course, jackets and coats need to have pockets.” And for the most part, I would agree with that. Often pockets in coats and jackets are part of the design and add stylistic interest as well as functionality. Here are a few examples of coats I have made, with such pockets:
Here is a jacket pattern which is in my sewing queue for 2022. I absolutely love the pockets.
And where would a Classic French jacket be without its pockets? They are not really functional, but undeniably integral to the design.
Not all coats have pockets, however. Take a look at this Madame Gres design which I made in a lavender linen. It has no pockets, nor would I want them in this Spring coat.
And here is a “summer” coat which I think is just so chic. No pockets.
I have made this coat pattern twice – once with pockets and once without.
The wool version has in-seam pockets which I find useful:
But here is the same pattern, made as a “cocktail” coat. I made it pocketless and love it.
Clearly there is much to consider when it comes to pockets. When we add them to a garment, or delete them, or change their placement, or baste them shut to eliminate that dreadful “pooch” problem, we are admitting that not all pockets are equal. Some are perfect in every way, some not so much, and some – are never missed.
Filed under Coats, Day dresses, Fashion commentary, Mid-Century style, pockets, Uncategorized, vintage Vogue patterns from the 1950s, Vogue patterns
Tagged as 1950's Vogue patterns, fashion sewing, pockets, sewing, vintage fashion, vintage Vogue patterns, Wall Street Journal Fashion coverage