DIRTY SKOOL, NOW IN SESSION: HATTIE CARNEGIE, EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY NEW YORK FASHION ENTREPRENEUR

Before Barneys was even a dinosaur let alone a luxury shopping center, there was only Hattie Carnegie.
TEXT Yoni Weiss

 

 

Before Saks Fifth Avenue, before Philip Treacy, and even before YSL, there was only Hattie Carnegie… in America of course.  An immigrant from Austria in the late 19th century, she founded one of the most successful, high end department store chains, which set the example to be duplicated time and again across the country and at department stores everywhere.

She began working with her father as a milliner, soon opening up her own hat shop in the East Village of New York City with a friend.  Although not a seamstress or a designer herself, she was very diligent in the art direction of the dresses that were made.  Early on in the 20th century, Paris (being Paris) was the sole fashion capital of the world, churning out all the couture and the trends, setting standards of taste for all in the West.  Knowing this, Hattie traveled to Paris, bought up a ton of Chanel and Dior, came back to the US and set her worker bees to work.

 

 

Enter the Great Depression and World War II, which made French fashion, fabrics and manufacturing hard to come by.  Not to mention her couture clientele was falling short on it’s tab with her made-to-order garments.  And so came out the shrewd business woman inside.  She started her Spectator Sports line of dresses in the ready-to-wear fashion she pioneered & became known for.  Some even credit Hattie Carnegie for being the first to create ready-to-wear, and the now famous concept of a less expensive, less custom “diffusion line.”  Soon it was business as usual, her shop grew into an entire department store, with the ability to dress women from “head to hem” with hats, dresses, jewelry, handbags, furs, cosmetics and fragrances (The only thing she didn’t carry was shoes).

Carnegie enjoyed tremendous success throughout her career, including a contract she landed with the U.S. Army, to design the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) uniform in 1950.  On 1 June 1952, Hattie received the Congressional Medal of Freedom for the WAC uniform design and for her many other charitable and patriotic contributions.  The WAC design was so timelessly elegant that it was still in use for women’s U.S. Army uniforms in 1968.

Appearing in many of her own ad campaigns, Hattie Carnegie became so iconic as the face of her own company — because of this, when she died in 1956, the business soon followed, having lost much of its appeal with American women who looked up to her as a strong example of the female’s American dream.

 

 

 

 






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