Women in Fashion

The following objects from the collection of The Museum at FIT are a small assortment of the many wonderful stories of women in fashion.

Evening dress Front detailThe Museum at FIT

Women in Fashion

Women have long played a significant role in fashion. In the 1920s and 1930s, female designers, such as Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (shown here), Elsa Schiaparelli, Madeleine Vionnet, and Jeanne Lanvin dominated the world of fashion. After 1945, male designers, such as Christian Dior, became more important, but women, like Claire McCardell and Diana Vreeland, continued to work throughout the fashion industry. 

Evening dress Front of evening dressThe Museum at FIT

Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel

Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883-1971) was not just a fashion designer; she was also her own best fashion model. She created an image of herself as a modern woman of style, dandyish in her simplicity, with a casual chic that made other women look like over-dressed dolls. By publicizing this image, Chanel not only achieved a much higher profile than her contemporaries (whether men like Jean Patou or women like Jeanne Lanvin), she also created a prototype for the modern woman — one that has lasted until today. Although she closed her couture house in 1939, Chanel reopened in 1954, and positioned herself as the antithesis of the reigning male designers of the postwar era.

Evening dress (1929) by Louise BoulangerThe Museum at FIT

Louise Boulanger 

Louise Boulanger (1878-1950) was one of the many talented women designers who dominated Paris fashion in the period "between Poiret's harem and Dior's New Look." Approximately four years before establishing her own label, the American designer Muriel King purchased this dress while working in Paris as a fashion illustrator.  As a guidebook of the 1920s observed, "Women who dare to wear clothes that are strikingly individual and about three seasons ahead of the style naturally gravitate to Louiseboulanger." Among her clients were Mrs. Reginald (Daisy) Fellowes and la duchesse de Gramont.

Dress Detail of back of dressThe Museum at FIT

Jane Régny

Jane Régny was one of a "Regiment of Women" who dominated fashion during the 1920s and 1930s. Unlike most previous dressmakers, she came from a middle-class family, and was known for her love of sports. 

Evening dress Front detailThe Museum at FIT

Jeanne Lanvin

Jeanne Lanvin (1867-1946) was a truly great couturière, although she is less famous today than her contemporary, Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel. This dress was donated by the fashion historian, Caroline Rennolds Milbank. The journalist Janet Flanner, writing for Ladies’ Home Journal in April 1929, observed that although Lanvin had a strong proclivity for historical styles, her fashions were nonetheless modern. Flanner concluded that Jeanne Lanvin had successfully “pulled the past forward.”

Novelty bag (c. 1938) by Elsa SchiaparelliThe Museum at FIT

Elsa Schiaparelli

Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973) is best known for her surrealistic fashions, such as her "shoe hat" and "tear dress." She was the first couturier to integrate sophisticated and complex artistic concepts into highly wearable material. This charming evening bag is designed to resemble a bouquet of violets and pansies. When the bag moves, the flowers tremble.

Dress Front detailThe Museum at FIT

Madeleine Vionnet 

Among connoisseurs, Madeleine Vionnet (1876-1975) is regarded as having been the greatest fashion designer of the 20th century. She is known especially for her use of the bias cut to create body-worshipping gowns. She studied the way the fabric draped – with, against, or across the weave – and then she would make a life-size dress to fit a living, moving woman, such as the Duchess de Gramont. "Ah, she was a real model," Vionnet recalled. "Tall and lovely. When I was designing a dress, I had only to ask her to come and try it on … and I knew exactly where it was wrong." 

Top Detail of front of topThe Museum at FIT

Carolyn Schnurer

This embroidered top, by American designer Carolyn Schnurer (1908-1998), epitomizes the designer’s whimsical sportswear. Fashion editor Diana Vreeland, who styled this top in an editorial for Harper’s Bazaar (December 1952), once said that “fashion must be the most intoxicating release from the banality of the world.” 

Ensemble (Spring 2015) by Chitose AbeThe Museum at FIT

Chitose Abe

Chitose Abe (b. 1965), the designer behind the brand Sacai, is known for her clever bricolage of disparate elements. With this ensemble, she has taken the horizontal “Breton” stripes of the French Navy and combined them with lace, a juxtaposition that both highlights and challenges the masculine and feminine qualities of each material.

Evening dress Detail of front of evening dressThe Museum at FIT

Women of Style

The fashion or style icon is a special type of fashion insider, someone who is far more than an early adopter or celebrity clothes horse. The fashion icon not only inspires fashion designers and validates their clothes, but actually creates looks that influence the way other people dress and/or think about dressing.

Evening dress Front of evening dressThe Museum at FIT

This lustrous, cream satin and tulle evening dress projects an ethereal luxury appropriate to its original owner, the Russian Empress Alexandra Feodorovna (1798-1860). The lightweight tulle hovers above an expansive satin skirt and bodice with generous puff sleeves, imparting a feeling of weightlessness. The transparent over-sleeves are probably removable, a feature that would have facilitated the transition from day to evening wear.

Dress (c. 1941) by MainbocherThe Museum at FIT

This evening ensemble by the American couturier Mainbocher was made for the Duchess of Windsor (1896-1986). An American divorcée, she caused a scandal when the Prince of Wales wanted to marry her. He abdicated, choosing “the woman I love” over the throne of Great Britain. Both of them loved fashion.

Evening dress Front of evening dressThe Museum at FIT

Despina Messinesi

Flowers were a consistent theme in Christian Dior’s work. The embroidered flowers on this dress appear to be growing around the wearer’s body: in full bloom at the top of the bodice and trailing off as vines near the hem. Dior’s expression of the overtly feminine silhouette was embraced by magazines like Vogue, whose Paris fashion editor, Despina Messinesi (1911-2003), owned this dress.

Evening dress Front of evening dressThe Museum at FIT

Lisa Kirk

Charles James is famous for his ability to “sculpt” with fabric, and his garments are often considered to be works of art. Many fashion historians attribute James’s adept use of elaborate, rigid structures and fluid folds to his early career as a milliner. The Museum at FIT has one of the world’s best collections of his dresses, many of which were worn by Lisa Kirk (1925-1990).

Dress Front of dressThe Museum at FIT

Lauren Bacall

This seamless dress is made from Cardine, a form of Dynel fabric developed by Pierre Cardin, who was known for his bold experimentations with "Space Age" fabrics and silhouettes. Molded and heat-pressed into a sharp, angular shapes, the stiff fabric enhances Cardin's predilection for geometric silhouettes. Lauren Bacall (1924-2014) endorsed these qualities, proclaiming, "Today's well dressed woman can travel with her dress in a paper bag if it's made of Cardine."

Ensemble Overview of ensembleThe Museum at FIT

Lauren Bacall wore this vivid pink ensemble in the film Sex and the Single Girl (1964). 

The beautifully set rhinestone buttons add a touch of glamour and are repeated on the back of the sleeveless blouse. Bacall admired Norman Norell’s precise tailoring and his use of couture fabrics and techniques.

Suit Front of suitThe Museum at FIT

Isabel Eberstadt

Isabel Eberstadt (1933-2007) epitomized the “society fashion celebrity” of the 1960s. She modeled for major fashion magazines, and appeared in Andy Warhol’s 1964 film, The Thirteen Most Beautiful Women. Eberstadt, the daughter of poet Ogden Nash, was also a writer and a patron of the arts. She was one of the first to pick up on new fashion trends, and her daring choices were lauded on “Best Dressed” lists. Eberstadt purchased this suit from Courrèges’ first collection.

Coat Front of coatThe Museum at FIT

Daphne Guinness

Jun Takahashi of Undercover is an innovative Japanese designer. This coat, donated by fashion icon Daphne Guinness (b. 1967), features a skull motif, typical of Undercover's often cute but scary aesthetic.

Coat Detail of coatThe Museum at FIT

Today, many women work as fashion professionals. Historically, women of style have also exerted an influence as valued clients, trendsetters, and muses. From the Duchess of Windsor to Lauren Bacall, Lisa Kirk, and Daphne Guinness, women have forged personal relationships with fashion designers and have sometimes created impressive collections of their work.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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