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.
￼Is It a Trench Coat – or Is it Not?
It is not. However, I am quite sure this classic look from 1974 was inspired by the classic Trench Coat as we know it.
I am certain this Vogue pattern is from 1974, as it is featured in that year’s July/August issue of Vogue Pattern Book Magazine. It is part of a section entitled NEW ARRIVALS.
The caption tells me it is made in silk shantung, a little bit of information unknown to me when I decided to make my (new) version of it in silk taffeta.
Interestingly, in the same NEW ARRIVALS section, a dress by Patou also is reminiscent of Trench coat style, with its epaulets, slotted pockets with shaped flaps and a belted waist. It also has a center back inverted pleat.
Fast forward two years and here is a very classic Trench in the 1976 September/October issue of Vogue Pattern Book Magazine.
The caption reads: “Come rain, come shine, what more liveable coat than the trench! All that star reporter elan in epaulets, front & back shields, center back inverted pleat.” This particular pattern also includes a detachable lining for the coat and additional detachable collar. I believe that is the collar you see in red in the above picture from the magazine. The thumbnail drawings of the pattern are helpful in seeing these details:
Now, hang onto your hats and fast forward 46 years to 2022. The Trench Coat, despite being in fashion since the 1940s, is apparently enjoying new attention and reimagination according to an article in the Style & Fashion section of The Wall Street Journal, April 23-24, 2022. Although I am a little doubtful as to the long-lasting appeal of some of the Trench Coat variations shown and suggested in the article by Katharine K. Zarrella – which include a skirt, pants and a corset (really?) – some of the reflections and thoughts on Trench Coat style by various fashion insiders are worth sharing.
Michael Kors is quoted as saying: “A trench coat inherently feels like an old friend that makes you feel very secure… But you want an old friend to surprise you.” (Pink checks, anyone?)
Jane Tynan, author of a soon-to-be-released book entitled Trench Coat, says the appeal of the Trench to contemporary women is the “danger and sensuality it conveys.” (Think spies and clandestine meetings.) However, a certain Loa Patman of Boston, Massachusetts, says, “Anything trench-inspired tends to look somewhat pulled together and professional.”
Well, I don’t expect to be doing any sleuthing in my Trench-inspired Christian Dior design from 1974, but I do aspire to feel “pulled together” while wearing it. Right now it is anything but pulled together, as you can see from the photos of my “work in progress”.
Thinking further about the origins – and definitional category – of this particular design from the House of Dior, it seems to me to be a cross between a dressmaker coat and a Trench. Perhaps “Dressmaker Trench” might be the best description. As you will recall, if you follow this blog, I have referred to “dressmaker coats” before. Fairchild’s Dictionary of Fashion describes it as: “A woman’s coat designed with softer lines and more details than the average coat. May have a waistline and unusual details, e.g., tucks or pleats.” (p. 92, ibid.)
I’m not sure Dressmaker Coat is a descriptor many use anymore, but it certainly is useful. One thing I am quite certain of, once this Trench-inspired Dressmaker Coat is finished – it promises to stand the test of further time. I anticipate it as a staple in my Spring and early Summer wardrobe.
Filed under Christian Dior, Coats, Dressmaker coats, Fashion commentary, Mid-Century style, Silk taffeta, Uncategorized, vintage Vogue patterns from the 1970s
Tagged as Dressmaker coats, fashion sewing, sewing, silk, vintage fashion, vintage Vogue patterns, Wall Street Journal Fashion coverage