American fashion designer Bonnie Cashin (1915–2000) was often referred to as one of the "Mothers of American Sportswear." Her productive career spanned over 40 years and ranged from dance halls to Hollywood to Seventh Avenue. Devoted to functional, uncomplicated designs, Cashin's many important innovations included a loose-fitting turtleneck that did not require a zipper to don, jumpsuits, and ponchos. Small wonder that one of her favorite catch phrases was "Chic is where you find it."
California to New York
Cashin was born on September 28, 1915, in Oakland, California. Her father, Carl, was a photographer/inventor (whose customary coveralls later inspired her to design the first woman's jumpsuit) and her mother, Eunice, was a dressmaker and major influence on her life. With her mother's encouragement, Cashin was already drawing sketches of clothing by the time she was eight, and as a mere high school student she got her first job as a designer.
Cashin was a 16-year-old senior at Hollywood High School when she went to audition to be a chorus girl for Franchon & Marco, a Los Angeles dance troupe. Rather than ending up dancing with the troupe, however, her sketches convinced the manager to hire the teenager as the group's costume designer. He was sufficiently impressed with her work to suggest that Cashin go to New York City to study at the Art Students League. She happily did so, and soon found herself the chief costume designer for the Roxy Theater's "Roxyettes," the theater's answer to Radio City's "Rockettes" in the 1930s. Cashin was only 19 when she landed the job, prompting Variety to hail her as "the youngest designer to ever hit Broadway," according to Amy M. Spindler of the New York Times Magazine .
While Cashin was designing for the Roxy, Harper's Bazaar editor Carmel Snow attended a performance that included a dance number inspired by her magazine. Snow admired the young designer's costumes so much that she arranged for Cashin to become a designer at the prestigious house of Adler & Adler. Cashin worked there from 1937 until 1943. She also, along with such designing luminaries as Claire McCardell and Vera Maxwell, contributed to the war effort during World War II by designing civilian defense uniforms for women workers. The juxtaposition between the utilitarian aspects of the latter and the glamorous showgirls' costumes with which Cashin had started out did much to define what became her signature style.
In 1943 Cashin traded the East Coast for the West, and signed on as a designer for 20th Century Fox in Hollywood. She stayed for six years and created clothes for many movies, such as Claudia (1943), Laura (1944), A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), Anna and the King of Siam (1946), I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now (1947), The Snake Pit (1948), and Mr. Belvedere Goes to College (1949). Other films included The Eve of St. Mark (1944), The House on 92nd Street (1945), Give My Regards to Broadway (1948), and It Happens Every Spring (1949). Of all these, however, it is likely that Laura was the most influential.
Motion pictures of the 1940s tended to showcase their female stars as glamorous ladies of leisure or kittenish young vixens. But Cashin's designs for Laura 's star, Gene Tierney, were of a different ilk altogether. As Ethel King of the London Guardian put it, "Gene Tierney's wardrobe … is like no other of the period. She wore, not costumes for an actress's part, but real clothes that could have been owned by a real woman: separates, a witty raincoat and hat. They, more than the script or playing, suggest Laura chooses what she wears: not to advertise nubility or family wealth but to please herself." It was a revolutionary concept and aptly reflected Cashin's real-life views. By 1949, she was headed back to New York to further implement them.
The Bonnie Cashin Look
After Cashin's return to New York, she briefly went back to work for Adler & Adler, winning both the American Designers Coty Award and the Neiman Marcus Award in 1950. But she continued to chafe under the restraints of what she saw as Seventh Avenue's staid and traditional mindset. Indeed, Suzy Menkes of the International Herald Tribune cited one of Cashin's famous quips as, "Much of what is merely dull is called classic." So she set about creating her own style.
In the early 1950s, Cashin opened a studio called "Bonnie Cashin Designs." Her clothes were designed with a comfort, functionality, and practicality that embraced the newly-emerging independent woman and eschewed the ultra-femininity of the time. As design historian and Cashin friend Stephanie Day Iverson told Lisa Schmeiser of Investor's Business Daily , "She didn't design for trends or fads. She had a very distinct philosophy in look and dress." That philosophy was clearly displayed by, for instance, the name of her first collection, "We Live as We Please," as well as by the clothes themselves.
As early as 1943, Cashin had demonstrated her innovation and outlook by showing boots worn with tweed suits. Other pioneering designs included canvas raincoats (1952), industrial zippers (1955), and the jumpsuits inspired by her father (1957). Many of her most famous looks stemmed from her search for pragmatic solutions to situations in her own life. Those included the poncho, which came about after she cut a hole into a blanket in order to stay warm while driving her convertible, and clips to hike up a long skirt in the front, which were born from Cashin's effort to carry a cocktail upstairs without mishap. Brass toggles to close handbags and coats, as well as to decorate gloves, were inspired by those that anchored her convertible's top. As she often noted, "Chic is where you find it."
Through the course of being one of the first designers to create and popularize women's sportswear, Cashin introduced other unique designs, later standards in the fashion industry. Among these were a roomy turtleneck that did not need a zipper to get it over one's head, the concepts of layering to deal with temperature changes and the use of such heavyweight materials as leather (she was the first to do a leather dress). Some were utilitarian, such as the now ubiquitous leather tote modeled after a paper shopping bag, and others more whimsical, such as fringed suede dresses; but all were created with the new vibrant, modern woman in mind.
Cashin was uncompromising in her work. She refused to be tied to one label, feeling it would crimp her style. Instead, she collaborated with companies such as Bergdorf Goodman, Liberty of London, American Airlines, Samsonite, and White Stag, that allowed her total creative control. Nor did she ever have a design assistant, preferring to personally monitor each creation from sketch to production. The licensing boom of the 1970s did not tempt her either, although it undoubtedly would have made her an even wealthier woman. Eric Wilson and Janet Ozzard of WWD quoted Cashin's comments on this unusual autonomy as, "I didn't want to be boxed in by any one company or any one design problem. I thought I'd let my mind run freely. I wanted to design everything a woman puts on her body. I felt that designing for the entire body was like an artist's composition."
Such independence did not stop Cashin from forming some quite notable alliances, however. Perhaps most prom- inent among them were those with leather manufacturer Philip Sills and leather goods maker Coach. She worked with the latter as its original designer from the early 1960s until 1974, for example, and revitalized the company's line with such customer-pleasing ideas as sprightly colors and handbags with attached change purses and zip compartments. One of her standouts for the former was her hallmark cream leather jacket with equine clasps. In short, her business requirements may have been unusual, but they appeared to suit both Cashin and her fans just fine.
Life of Beauty and Style
Cashin traveled widely during her life, and took much inspiration from those experiences. As Spindler quoted her, "My interests are people and how they look. I remember the way a fisherman wore his shirt in Portofino—the odd chic of the beige and white starched habit of a little nun in Spain—the straw hat of a man riding a donkey in Rhodes—a man's wedding scarf in India—the elegant drape of a panung in Bangkok." So great was her fascination with other countries and sense of generosity that she was known to return home with a completely different wardrobe from the one she had departed with. That was because she gave away her things to anyone who admired them, and was equally happy to acquire local garments. Naturally, such predilections were often reflected in her designs.
Cashin was also a lover of beauty in her surroundings, and while on the road she adorned her hotel rooms with Thai silks and bouquets of flowers. At home in her apartment overlooking New York's East River, she surrounded herself with color provided by her own clothing designs displayed in open closets and on exposed shelves, as well as with the work of such contemporaries as Charles and Ray Eamse and Isamu Noguchi. In Victoria , Iverson described Cashin's home: "Like her fashions, Bonnie's apartment, dazzlingly sunny, informal and intellectual, was autobiographical…. It was a kinetic collage of shapes, textures and colors."
In 1972 Cashin was inducted into the Coty American Fashion Critics Hall of Fame. That same year she founded The Knittery, a company devoted to the manufacture of hand-knitted clothing from hand-spun yarns. Along the way, she had also established the Innovative Design Fund, dedicated to funding prototypes of objects for personal or domestic use, as well as served as an advisor to the government of India concerning the development of textiles for export. Clearly, her interests and accomplishments were as diverse as those of the women who wore her clothing.
By 2000 plans for a retrospective on Cashin's work at New York's Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology and a book by Iverson were in the works. Her designs had been incorporated, adapted, and adopted by so many and become such a part of contemporary styling that they no longer seemed as cutting-edge and avant garde as they once had. And that, of course, was the ultimate testament to their influence. Cashin would likely have understood that perfectly, as evidenced by her words cited by Rosemary Feitelberg of WWD . "The moment you think of an idea, it is no longer yours exclusively," she said.
Cashin died on February 3, 2000. A year later, she received a plaque on the Fashion Walk of Fame.
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