edited by Nancy Deihl. Bloomsbury Academic, February 2018. 251 p. ill. ISBN 9781350000469 (pbk.), $26.95.
Reviewed July 2018
With this volume, the contributing authors and editor Nancy Deihl have illuminated the contributions of twentieth-century women designers to the development of the American fashion market and created a valuable addition to any fashion history collection. The book is organized according to three themes–Design Innovators, Developing an Industry, and Hollywood, Broadway, and Seventh Avenue–and eighteen women designers are discussed across sixteen chapters. Given the nature of the American ready-to-wear fashion market, which saw women designers creating clothing for labels that would rarely bear their names, acknowledgement and discussion of these designers has been minimal (for an earlier entry into the narrow canon on women designers, see Women of Fashion: Twentieth-Century Designers by Valerie Steele, Rizzoli, 1991).
The “rediscovering” in the book’s subtitle perhaps implies that many are aware of these designers and only need a reminder of their impact. While this could be true for established fashion scholars, these chapters are likely the broadest exposure that many of these designers have received to date. Nearly every chapter’s bibliography is comprised primarily of a mix of archival papers and news clippings from the era. This lends a trailblazing tone to the work and also helps explain why some chapters only skim the surface, since not every designer had the foresight to maintain personal records. Elizabeth “Libby” Payne’s chapter is a key example of the benefit of this foresight. Payne was a designer who worked for over fifty years under a variety of labels. As the garments she designed never bore her name, Payne took it upon herself to record her accomplishments and ultimately amassed over 450 pages of memoir. As a result, a designer who otherwise would have been unknown is now rightly part of fashion history.
While the number of represented designers is impressive and each chapter’s tone is accessible and enlightening for a variety of readers, the black and white images leave something to be desired. Where possible, color images would have been more engaging, with one particularly glaring instance. Writing about Ruth Finley’s Fashion Calendar, author Natalie Nudell references the calendar’s bold red or pink cover. The image of the Fashion Calendar included in the chapter is a dark gray. Thankfully, many of the images are clear and well-sized, which help to compensate for the color deficit.
Given that some of these designers were virtually unknown (at least by name) during their own time and then undervalued in fashion history, The Hidden History of American Fashion is a crucial first step in shedding light on the myriad contributions of these women. This book is highly recommended to anyone interested in fashion history, gender studies, or cultural studies and would make a good addition to collections that support these subjects.