Hepburn’s Floppy Pants & the FIT

Chris Brady cdbrady at attglobal.net
Wed Jul 2 11:04:23 MDT 2003

Hepburn’s Floppy Pants & the FIT

Katherine Hepburn’s signature baggy slacks suits were the centerpiece of
The American Look--the creation of Elizabeth Hawes (1903-1971).  Hawes
was a Marxist fashion designer.  She spent some time in Paris in the
Thirties.  She went there on her own investigation of the world’s
fashion industry Mecca.  She sent back to America her regularly
syndicated column she called “Parisite.”  Hawes had a lively sense of
humor.  She was vivacious, and a forthright leftist.  When she returned
to the States, Hawes edited a section on practical clothing for working
women at the New York progressive daily PM.

When the war against fascism started, Hawes went to work with the UAW
Education Department.  Her first book about the autoworkers was Why
Women Cry; or Wenches with Wrenches (1943).  Her sequel Hurry Up Please,
It’s Time was published three years later just after the war in 1946.
Historian Michael Denning judges Hurry Up “a more coherent book than its
predecessor, it sacrifices satiric portraits and visionary utopias.”
One could add that it was more practically Marxist in its analysis—and
very readable, too, intended for a mass audience.

Denning remarks: “Perhaps the most imaginative and important exponent of
[the] labor feminist aesthetic was Elizabeth Hawes (146).”  (See:
Denning, Michael.  The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture
in the Twentieth Century.  New York: Verso, 1996.)

Bettina Berch wrote the definitive Hawes biography: Radical by Design :
The Life and Style of Elizabeth Hawes (New York: Dutton, 1988).  Berch
related a funny story about two marxist labor organizers who had the
name Elizabeth Hawes.  They drove their FBI tails crazy for years.  The
G-men feared this Hawes must be a super woman.  One night she would be
holding forth with the radical chic at some soiree on Fifth Avenue and
the next morning she was shouting on a picket line in front of the gates
of a garment factory in North Carolina.

Of course Hawes careers as a fashioner and as a radical writer were
snuffed by McCarthyite hysteria.  She lived a bohemian life regardless.
I can’t remember whether it was posthumously or close to it, but at a
big shindig attended by Big Apple luminaries, Elizabeth Hawes was
awarded some sort of special recognition by the Fashion Institute of
Technology (FIT).

As a personal aside, I became more politically aware after years of
working in the restaurant business in New York.  I used my tips as a
waiter and bartender to support my painting in my Manhattan studio.  In
those days I hung with an arty crowd, and the bar/restaurant worker life
was quite conscious of what was hip.  When I later started taking
classes at Brooklyn College, read the Communist Manifesto, and became
more involved, I started getting all sorts of Marxist literature.  Some
pamphlets fell into my hands that originated from the FIT.  I was
astonished that this famous fashion school was so radical!

A list of other Hawes books includes:

Fashion is spinach (1938)

Men can take it. Illustrated by James Thurber (1939)

Why is a dress? who? what? when? where? (1942)

Anything but love; a complete digest of the rules for feminine behavior
from birth to death, given out in print, on film, and over the air,
read, seen, listened to monthly by some 340,000,000 American women.

It's still spinach. (1954)

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