Deihl, Nancy. editor. The Hidden History of American Fashion: Rediscovering 20th-Century Women Designers. Bloomsbury, 2018. ISBN: 978-1-3500-0104-6 (cloth).
Published in February 2018, The Hidden History of American Fashion is one of the more recent additions to my bookshelf. With my keynote lecture on the "hidden" American fashion designer of the 1930s, Elizabeth Hawes (1903–1971), soon to take place at the forthcoming conference for The Space Between Society, Intersections of Resistance, its arrival is also exceptionally well-timed. The book is edited by Nancy Deihl, Director of MA Costume Studies at New York University, and comprises 16 chapters, each written by a different scholar dealing with a different designer. The timeframe spans from the Twenties through to the Eighties. Among the featured designers are Jessie Franklin Turner, Tina Leser, Fira Benenson, Libby Payne, and Zelda Wynn Valdes. Interestingly, and with my own perspective in mind, Elizabeth Hawes is given but passing mention and, while she has her own entry in the index of the book, she does not have her own chapter. There are, after all, only so many stories that can be told in a 250-page volume, and I suspect Hawes (the topic of a biography by Bettina Burch in 1988) may be less hidden than some of her professional peers who make the final cut in this instance.
In her introduction, Deihl informs the reader that the aim of Hidden History is to “reclaim a place…for some of the many designers who contributed to the fashion industry in their own time” (1-2). The book succeeds in achieving its stated aim and, in so doing, illuminates some of the varied, key roles that women played in the American fashion industry and its development throughout the twentieth century. This recuperation is both welcome and overdue. Back in 2000, the celebrated fashion historian Valerie Steele (Director and Chief Curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, NYC) observed that most female designers in the early decades of the twentieth century were, and remain, anonymous: leaving “little trace” she noted, they “labored in obscurity.” The contributing authors to Deihl’s edition have not had, then, an easy task in the pursuit of these biographical and creative stories. Their chapters represent painstaking research in archives and museum collections across the United States, and the rich empirical work presented by the authors makes a useful contribution to the scholarly fields of fashion and women’s studies on which to build further.
The overriding thesis of the book is concerned with a disruption of the idea that American fashion has a singular history or characterization manifested in "the casual." Together, the women included in the pages of Hidden History present a diversity of experiences and practices ranging across tailoring, millinery, children’s wear, and theatrical costuming. They also span a variety of scales, having designed clothes for individual custom clients as well as the mass market. The book delivers an intersectional account of the history of American female designers and, with it, creates a colorful, nuanced backdrop against which to place my own interpretation—and grow my understanding—of Elizabeth Hawes.
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