Underrated Female #10: Bonnie Cashin

12/17/2008

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The 98-year tour de force that was the life of Bonnie Cashin left an enormous, oft-overlooked, inspiration-riddled legacy for American fashion designers.  One visit to her website delivers to you a landing page that plays an interview where Cashin straight-talks about women’s design needs in her Kate Hepburn-esque chic yet all-business tone.

Born in California in 1908, Cashin was raised by a dressmaker mother and never received any formal design training. After a short stint designing costumes for chorus girls in Los Angeles, her carreer hit its stride when she took as position as costume designer at Twentieth Century Fox in 1943, eventually wardrobing over sixty films including including Laura (1944), Anna and The King of Siam (1946), and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1946). She used Fox’s libraries and leading ladies to develop ideas for “real” clothing and returned to ready-to-wear in 1949.

Her collections were a testament to her unsuppressable joi de vivre and fiercely independent nature. As the late and very great Amy Spindler wrote in her Cashin tribute for The New York Times:

To say that the fashion designer Bonnie Cashin was a colorful character is an understatement. Her clothes alone were so colorful that she used them, in open closets and exposed shelves, as her apartment’s primary decor. That decor blended beautifully with pieces by the designers of the day she considered her peers, people who didn’t make clothes at all — the Eamses, George Nelson and Isamu Noguchi.


In 1950, Cashin received the Neiman Marcus Award and Coty Fashion Critic’s Award for her first return collection. Soon after she began working with multiple manufacturers to design a range of clothing at different price points. This enabled her to create complete the chic, yet no-nonsense wardrobes for modern living that defined her. She was convinced that fashion was a failure if it was not functional and accessible. Her work even had a political undertone; she believed fashion should set women free, not restrain them. Spindler went on in her article, “She had little patience for the inbred fashion industry, which she felt was devoted to hobbling women with its fussy clothes.” In the 1950’s, her prices ranged from $14.95 for a plastic raincoat to $2,000 for a fur kimono.

In 1962, with Miles and Lillian Cahn, wholesale manufacturers of men’s wallets, she launched Coach as a women’s handbag and accessory firm. Her designer caché and her inimitable aesthetic kept her in constant demand. She designed for companies ranging from American Airlines to Hermès, and was the first American designer to have a boutique in Liberty’s of London.

Without licensing her name, Cashin also designed knitwear, gloves, totes, at-home gowns and robes, raincoats, umbrellas, hats and furs. Among many other honors she received the Coty award four additional times, entering their Hall of Fame in 1972.

In 1985 Cashin retired to focus on painting and philanthropy until her death in 2000. Her designs are housed in many major museum collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

I love this woman.

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