American fashion can sometimes be a bit of a conundrum. Always caught between the casual and chic and elegant, nothing really defines it like the glamour that is Paris or the style that is London.
There have really been few great American designers who have reached the lofty heights of sheer drop dead glamour. Mainbocher, James and Halston are up there, and so is Norman Norell. Now the name on people’s lips since First Lady Michelle Obama wore vintage Norell to a Washington Christmas Party in 2010, Norell is hot! Her choice is proving that great American fashion can be timeless.
Somewhat forgotten since his death in 1972, this in itself is telling in the negligence that coincides with the decline of the fashion industry in America. Known for his pret a porter which bordered on couture, Norell bought quality, taste and sophistication to a public that were yearning for this sort of cachet.
Receiving his initial training in New York at Parsons, he continued a strong relationship with the school right up until his death serving on the school’s advisory board and the Board of Trustees.
Norell was a central figure in the development of the American fashion industry from the 1940s through the early 1970s. His simple but stylish clothing was lauded for its glamour, timelessness, and high-quality construction. Considered the first American fashion designer to compete successfully with French couturiers a niche was carved out for the client who wanted to be dressed in the height of fashion.
Gaining prominence during WWII because of the lack of communication that was available between France and America at the time, magazines such as Vogue and Harper's Bazaar began to feature more American designers and Norell was one of them.
Norell's aesthetic is known for its precision tailoring, simplicity, and elegant femininity. . Innovative techniques and designs associated with him include the “Mermaid Dress”, a formfitting sequined evening sheath; evening and feminine variations on the pea coat; blouses and dresses with floppy bows tied under the chin, jeweled or contrasting buttons that added punch to an otherwise impeccably restrained ensemble; warm and rich looking fur and coat weight wool pants.
His “Subway Coat” which from the outside looked like a well cut conservative wool overcoat but when opened revealed a glorious sequined lining, perfect for riding on the subway en-route to a cocktail party or nightclub.
The designer’s talent was recognized in 1943 when he received the first Coty American Fashion Critics Award ever presented. He was to be awarded four more such awards, and in 1956, he was inducted into the Coty Hall of Fame.
America, needs more designers like this.