#ThrowbackThursday: Elizabeth Hawes – the Red Cross, pants, and changing the face of fashion

By: Elissa Blattman, NWHM Intern

In the spirit of our recent exhibit, “From Ideas to Independence: A Century of Entrepreneurial Women,” this Throwback Thursday post is all about boundary-pushing fashion entrepreneur, Elizabeth Hawes.

The Pittsburgh Press, March 4, 1940 (click on image to read full article)

Elizabeth Hawes was born into an upper class family in New Jersey in 1903.  Even by age 12, when she was commissioned to make dresses for a shop in Pennsylvania, she knew she wanted to be a fashion designer.  She studied at Vassar College and Parsons School of Design, worked in a Paris fashion copy house, and wrote about fashion for The New Yorker.  In 1928, she opened her clothing firm, Hawes Inc., which originally made expensive custom outfits for women affluent enough to afford them.  Though she produced clothing for the wealthy, Hawes often mocked high fashion by introducing a bohemian influence to her designs and including styles for full figured women.  She also believed women’s clothes should be comfortable and nonrestrictive, which meant a shift toward free flowing outfits and even – as shocking as it may sound – pants for women.

Though Hawes, Inc. originally produced only expensive custom outfits, Hawes eventually took issue with what she saw as the classist fashion industries of Paris and New York.  She criticized the New York industry in particular for creating poorly constructed, expensive clothing and encouraging such items by marketing them as trendy.  Hawes began to seek ways to create reasonably priced, high quality designs for working class women and for a way to get these designs to the public.  She worked with retailers to produce and sell affordable clothes.  Her new designs celebrated the working class and diversity, as well as American-made patriotism.

The Milwaukee Journal, April 21, 1938 (click on image to read full article)

The Milwaukee Journal, June 16, 1931 (click on image to read full article)

Spokane Daily Chronicle, July 25, 1941 (click on image to read full article)

Continuing her working class and patriotic aesthetic, Elizabeth Hawes designed the outdoor uniform for female volunteers of the American Red Cross in the early 1940s.  Her design was worn by all but one volunteer branch of the Red Cross for outdoor duties and was very popular with the workers.  It was important for Hawes to make the uniforms affordable, especially because Red Cross workers were expected to pay for their uniforms themselves.  If she had continued in the trend of New York fashion and made these garments cater only to the upper class, it could have greatly diminished the number of Red Cross volunteers during this preparation period leading up to the United States’ inevitable entry into World War II.  Being that these were outdoor uniforms, it was also important that Hawes make them warm and suitable to be worn in cold weather, as well as easy to work in, which she did.

In addition to the newspaper articles linked above, you can learn more about Elizabeth Hawes and other female designers in this video of the NWHM-hosted lecture, “Woman-Made Women: American Designers, Taste, and Mid-Century Culture,” at the Wilson Center in November 2012.

Join in on the conversation!  Post comments below, on Facebook, or Tweet us @womenshistory using the hashtag #ThrowbackThursday.

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