Norell: Master of American Fashion

In age that’s rife with braggadocio and vanity, it can be such a relief to study a man like Norman Norell. If he were alive today, some publicist would be crowing about his relationships with the rich and famous, touting his reputation as America’s Balenciaga. During his lifetime, frequent comparisons to Balenciaga embarrassed the Noblesville, Indiana native—a shy, modest man who minimized his achievements as one of America’s foremost fashion designers.

Near the end of his life, Norell confirmed how little he cared for fame or money. “Designing has been good to me,” he confided to a junior colleague. “It never made me rich, but it’s all I ever wanted to do.”

Over the span of five decades in the fashion industry, Norell dressed the world’s most gorgeous women, from Lauren Bacall and Marilyn Monroe to Babe Paley and Jackie Kennedy. What Norell didn’t do was fraternize with them. He kept a low profile and relied instead on a publicist to promote his brand, one of the first designers to do so.

Norell’s refusal to boast, his private nature and his preference for a quiet life among a coterie of close friends may help explain why there wasn’t a single Norell monograph until earlier this year. Norell: Master of American Fashion is a long overdue tribute, revealing Norell’s pivotal role in liberating the American fashion industry from European influence during the early 1940s. The co-author is Jeffrey Banks, a New York fashion designer who has admired Norell’s work for as long as he can remember.

Banks was a young designer working and studying in New York in 1972 when he heard the Metropolitan Museum of Art was planning a one-night retrospective of Norell designs. At the time, Norell was 72. Many people thought he was nearing retirement. The Met exhibition was organized to honor Norell’s contributions, including two-decades of teaching in the Fashion Design Department at Parsons School of Design, where he was known as a generous and enthusiastic mentor of new talent.

Desperate to attend the 1972 Norell event, Banks had the pluck to ask his boss for the favors of time off and help getting tickets. When asked to justify the request, Banks answered without reservation. “Because he’s the greatest designer of the 20th century.” His boss at the time? None other than Ralph Lauren.

Evidently, Lauren was unaffected by the slight because he joined Banks at the Norell retrospective. The evening’s most dramatic moment came when the lights were dimmed and the room went pitch dark. “When the lights came up, the room was filled with 60 models in Norell’s glittering mermaid dresses,” Banks says.

Having suffered a stroke the week before, Norell couldn’t attend his own tribute. He died 10 days later.

Now an industry veteran with four other books to his credit, Banks says there was a lot of pent up demand for a book about Norell. “I wanted young people to know who he was,” Banks says. “Norell was utterly devoted to the craft of making beautiful clothes. He deserves to be remembered.”

In celebration of the new Norell biography, the Museum at FIT invited Banks to curate yet another Norell retrospective, which ended on April 14. The exhibit included ensembles from the 1920s through the 1970s, many of which are also pictured in the book.

Banks’ biography chronicles Norell’s evolution, starting with his early days of designing costumes for silent film stars such as Gloria Swanson. His career included a stint with a wholesale dress manufacturer, followed by 12 years of custom design for Hattie Carnegie, a brilliant entrepreneur who catered to a wealthy New York clientele. There he learned to dissect European couture and translate it for an American audience.

Throughout the book, Banks mines the infinite ways Norell sought perfection: custom-matched sequins, hand sewn to allow movement with the body; buttons that increased in size, millimeter by millimeter, top to bottom, to accentuate a woman’s figure; pockets that curved to flatter the hips or were subtly raised on the garment for easy access; cleverly-concealed zippers buried into pockets; sleeveless armholes covering the fleshy part of the body between woman’s underarm and breast; plunging bodices that hugged the body to avoid exposing a woman’s breast—sexy without being vulgar; generous two-inch seam allowances, silk linings, cloth-covered buttons, and so on.

When Norell traveled to Florida for trunk shows, he was adamant that each dress arrive free of wrinkles or other signs of rumpling. Each dress was carefully stuffed with tissue paper. For further protection, he occasionally bought individual plane tickets for certain dresses, which allowed them to hang freely during transport.

Aren’t all fashion designer’s obsessed with such details? Probably. But Norell was the first to bring this kind of excellence to ready-to-wear clothing, especially after he connected with Anthony Traina under the Traina-Norell label.

In Master of American Fashion, Banks explores Norell’s other firsts: the first American designer to create his own fragrance, the first designer to receive the Coty American Fashion Critic Award in 1943, and the first president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

He was also the first fashion designer to incorporate the practicality of menswear into a woman’s wardrobe during the 1960s. Having grown up near his father’s Noblesville haberdashery, which later became the Indianapolis menswear chain known as Harry Levinson, Norell’s love for fine tailoring and impeccable fit remained one of his hallmarks.

When Traina retired, Norell was finally on his own. Although his basic approach to design was consistent throughout his career, Norell continued to iterate and refine around certain codes—and he got better with age. “His last years, from 1960 to 1972, were his finest ones,” Banks says. “He had this tremendous creative burst.”

Designers are usually known for one thing or another, but Norwell’s daywear was on equal par with his evening wear. When a woman purchased Norell, she was making a lifetime investment. Most of the clothes featured in the FIT retrospective are as wearable today as they were 40 years ago—so classically designed that they may never look dated, so well constructed that they show no decline.

Norell: Master of American Fashion is a deep dive into Norell’s clothes, his history, the leading ladies he dressed and his legacy. Whether you’re an industry insider or someone who studies and/or collects fashion books, this is one to buy, read and keep on your bookshelf for future inspiration.

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