Elizabeth Arden built an empire on cosmetics. A Canadian by birth, Arden (1884-1966) started by giving manicures and making creams in New York around 1905. She was determined to build a fortune, and was often motivated by competition from Helena Rubinstein.
Today, Elizabeth Arden is still a well-known name for cosmetics. Yet many may not associate her name with clothing. Arden installed a Fashion Floor to her business in the 1940s and employed some extremely important designers over the years. There were so many talented designers that worked for Arden, that it merits a special series here on my blog. This first post will talk about the beginning, and Arden’s first collaboration with Charles James.
Elizabeth Arden. Image courtesy of biography.com
Elizabeth Arden’s start in fashion was fueled by competition and anger. In the 1930s and 1940s, Hattie Carnegie was the undisputed leader of American fashion. By 1944, she had been making American clothing for over 35 years. Carnegie had a keen eye for design and the marketplace. She consistently identified young emerging talent, like Norman Norell in the 1920s, Pauline Trigere in the 1930s, and Claire McCardell in the 1940s. Carnegie was amassing a fashion empire that was worth $6,500,000 in the 1940s. In true imperial fashion, Carnegie wanted to expand. So she decided to launch a line of cosmetics. (Source: Hattie Carnegie. Life Magazine, 1945, 64.)
Hattie Carnegie’s announcement of a cosmetics line. Image courtesy of Vogue.
This infuriated cosmetics mogul Elizabeth Arden. Immediately after receiving the news, Arden phoned her long-time friend, Chicago-based fashion designer Charles James and screamed: If that woman can do cosmetics, then I’ll do fashion. And this was the birth of the couture branch of her cosmetic and fragrance salon, the Elizabeth Arden Fashion Floor. (Source: Woodhead, Lindy. War Paint. London: Virago, 2005. )
Charles James (1906-1978) was the first couturier to debut for Arden’s Fashion Floor. James was born in England to a socially prominent family that divided their time between Europe and Chicago. He began his career as a milliner in 1926, opening a small Chicago boutique on Oak Street. Working under the name Boucheron, James began crafting beautiful hats.
Charles James at work. Photo by Cecil Beaton, 1943.
Often, James would create the hat directly on the client’s head for a perfect fit. It is this experience that shaped James entire career. The materials required in millinery are quite rigid to create structure. The construction of hats is architectural, which left a very strong mark on James clothing designs. He also liked working directly on the client’s body.
Obsessed with perfection, James viewed each of his garments and accessories as a work of art. He urged patrons to donate their gowns to museums. James himself donated several of his of dresses to museums, not only to elevate his status as a designer, but also to ease his tax burdens. This obsession with perfection led him to spend inordinate amounts of money and time in crafting garments, infuriating clients and leading to James own financial ruin. He was best characterized as:
an impossible genius. His personality “ bitter, petulant “ is the sand in the oyster bed. His clothes “ as structural and mathematical as a Mobius strip “ are the pearls. (Source: New York Magazine. January 12, 1976, 77.)
Charles James at work. Image courtesy of ananasmiami.com
James was extremely talented, but lacked business acumen and missed important deadlines. He had been kicked out of school as a teenager, and was extremely temperamental. He was often bankrupt due to breached contracts and late work. James was simply unable to manage his own business. He therefore jumped at the opportunity to be financed by Arden.
Elizabeth Arden was equally as petulant as James. When she phoned him in 1943 to begin the fashion floor, Arden assured James that he would be in complete control of the fashion operation. Perfect. You design them [the ateliers and showroom] and supervise their construction.
You can have the entire second floor at 691 [Fifth Avenue]…Charlie, it’s your baby. You’re in complete charge. I won’t interfere. (Source: Woodhead, Lindy. War Paint. London: Virago, 2005.)
Yet this was a promise Arden could never keep.
Things began smoothly. James was thrilled, and began by designing an extravagant showroom and atelier, despite wartime restrictions. He borrowed money from his mother to cover initial costs for the atelier: fitting, cutting, and sewing rooms. The atelier was illustrated by Cecil Beaton, James childhood friend, in August 1944.
This illustration appeared in Vogue of December 1944, but by the time the magazine had gone to print, James was no longer employed by Arden. Yet the illustration still serves as an intimate glance into James’ work space.
Standing mannequins showcase beautiful dresses in the process of being made. The space appears small, but functional. Workstations have piles of fabric, irons, and other tools of the trade. It seems as if the seamstresses had been discretely ushered out of the room in the middle of the day for Beaton to complete his illustration.
Dozens of mannequins are stored on the left side shelf, probably crafted to the measurements of specific clients. The showroom was even more magnificent. Lavish decorations filled the second floor salon: a crystal chandelier, sumptuous window drapes, and a table crafted with coral legs. The showroom had three large, intricately carved bay windows. James always enjoyed the finer things in life, and knew he would attract clients who shared his tastes. The interior was also complementary to James’ beautiful, intricate designs shown in the photograph.
Interior of Second Floor Showroom & Salon. Image courtesy of Vogue.
One of the hallmarks of the contentious relationship between Arden and James was that they shared a similar philosophy of fashion. Both disliked the casual aura that sportswear was creating in America. This casual look was first introduced by California designers, and spread quickly as women entered the workforce during World War II. Women had to have clothes that were practical, easy to wear, and could be laundered at home.
Both Arden and James detested this move towards casual sportswear. They believed that women should be polished, elegant, and put together “ even if it required rigid undergarments, a dressing maid, and disposable income. Simply put, they agreed that the new fashions were too simple and very sloppy. Their vision was to create a couture line of evening wear and gowns for special occasions. Arden believed James had just the panache she was looking for.
The opening of the Fashion Floor and its debut collection was presented at a Red Cross benefit at the Ritz Carlton. Arden entitled the show One Touch of Genius, and James showed 25 gowns. Curiously, there was not much reported about the first showing. The New York Times reported that:
The importance of good posture as a basis of both beauty and fashion was emphasized in a fashion show…The costumes were especially designed to bring out the beauty of the figure which is based on correct posture. (Source: Posture Fashions Shown. New York Times: 5 May 1944, 14.)
Arden also had models to demonstrate exercises to correct posture and increase flexibility at the event. The focus of the evening was on the total image, not on the designs of Charles James.
Arden told James to bring his designs directly to the press if he wanted attention. This resulted in several of his designs being featured in Vogue of October 1, 1944, including this pale blue silk satin gown worn by Marlena Dietrich (above). Considered a dinner sheath, this elegant gown showcases how both Arden and James believed women should be dressed for dinner and evening events. The gown is open diagonally from the shoulder to hip, and closes with self-material bows. The asymmetrical bias cut clings to Dietrich’s body, but allows for movement. The photograph attracted interest with wealthy clientele in New York, including Mrs. William Randolph Hearst, Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, and Mrs. William S. Paley. The new couture salon was experiencing its first fashion success.
Arden was thrilled. So thrilled, that she began to separate James from the debut of his collections. Angered that Arden took his dresses to Chicago without him, James decided to decorate the Fifth Avenue display window like a red light district. He took a red vase, dipped it in perfume, and placed a candle inside. The result was the window display looking – and smelling – like a very different type of establishment. After seeing the display, a friend of Arden’s said:
“My dear, I didn’t know you were running a red-light house.” (Source:
The relationship was strained beyond repair from this incident. Arden promptly dismissed James in the fall of 1944. James continued to design clothes for New York’s wealthy socialites. While his jaunt at Elizabeth Arden was brief, it was enough to make him well known.
Now, the cosmetic’s mogul was pinned against the wall: a Fashion Floor with no designer. . .
Hope you’re looking forward to hearing about the next designer for Elizabeth Arden! Be sure to check back next week.
A few weeks ago, I made the acquaintance of Tonya Gross, a Chicago-based milliner. I was in awe – a milliner? Based in America? Surely the American-made hat was a thing of the past, lost somewhere along the way with the handwritten letter. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Tonya makes gorgeous, custom-made hats and head wear that reminds me of a modern-day Charles James. Her story is inspirational: a former head fund manager, Tonya branched out to start her millinery business in 2007. She hasn’t looked back since.
Like any couturiere’s work, a closer look is needed to appreciate the intricate details. So Tonya agreed to let me interview her and highlight her gorgeous work.
Q) So you went from hedge funds to hear wear in 2006. But millinery isn’t exactly an intuitive process. When did you first start making hats, and who and what helped you perfect your craft?
I am new to labeling myself as a couture head wear designer. It’s a weird thing. I have been sewing most of my life but couture is something special. Yves St Laurent. Christian Dior. Charles James. Coco Chanel. Cristobal Balenciaga. tonya gross?! I am a long way from being in that company but I am excited for that journey!
Sewing as a kid, I loved to make my own clothes but had no patience for details. In the beginning, my mom would make me rip out the stitches and sew it again, insisting that I take my time. I drifted into head wear when I started thrifting in the 80’s for vintage head wear I could rework to cover my hair sculptures. The creative abyss began when I graduated from college, moved to Chicago and started my career in finance. Too busy to be creative, you know? I found myself longing for a balance of the cerebral and a creative life.
I left the hedge fund business and found millinery courses at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) with Eia Radosavljevic. You could say it was my epiphany. I continued taking photography, design and fiber courses at SAIC but decided just to go for it, launching tonya gross millinery in 2007. I continue to learn about millinery through my new work and networking with others in millinery. Social networking has been a fantastic way to connect with people in the industry all over the world. There is love and passion out there and I enjoy that connectivity.
Q) I just ADORE that you have a page devoted to what inspires you. After taking a look, I see you are inspired mostly by other design disciplines, like architecture and furniture. Can you tell me more about what draws you to your inspiration? Do you prefer geometric/asymmetrical compositions? Intense colors?
Thank you! Chicago itself is pretty inspiring. Have you seen the Jeanne Gang building, Aqua?! The building and the woman are both inspiring to me. I take a lot of photographs and cull magazines for inspiration too. Ultimately, it is the material that is most inspiring for me. It tells me what form it wants to take by how it responds to my hands, the forms I carve, moisture, etc. In some ways, I think the lack of millinery supply in Chicago (meaning the immediacy of traditional millinery materials) has also lead to some surprise successes. I often have to source substitutes for millinery felt, straw, etc. Simple problem solving. Done in an exceptional way, of course!
Q) Who/what do you have in mind while designing and creating your hats?
It depends on the objective. If it is a commission, it is about the client and their needs first. The shape of their face. The color of a dress. The season. An event. My ideal is designing, executing and selling pieces from my own aesthetic. Sweet creative freedom! I love the sculptural aspect of the design. The shape of the hat can come from an object that I carve first.
Q) Tell us about some of your recent projects. Your hats were featured in Pamella Roland’s collection at Merecedes Benz Fashion Week for s/s 12. How exciting! Please tell us the details!
I had met Pamella earlier this year at the Kentucky Derby. She had purchased one of my pieces at that time. I was so touched. I heard from her team some time before MBFW and was asked to create several pieces like the one she had purchased in custom colors to go with designs for the runway. I had to turn the request around pretty quickly but was happy to do it. Pamella is also from Michigan and is known as a big supporter of art, artists and emerging designers like me. Pretty cool to not only show with Pamella but to have it photographed by Nigel Barker. I really enjoy the idea of collaborating with other designers and look forward to the chance to do it all again. That’s an open invitation to other designers, by the way!
Q) Do you think America will ever make the move back to wearing hats? The royal wedding really got a lot of public interest and appreciation for hats. Can you give some advice on how Americans can wear hats in our social settings?
Of course I believe people are wearing hats again! He or she is or will be wearing a hat every day if I have my way! I think the resurgence in hat wearing started over a decade ago but I know milliners- American, Irish, English, French- that continued to make hats through a time where everyone had said no one was wearing hats. I love them for their dedication to the millinery industry and their art. Even though fashion designers and magazines were not featuring milliners, they were still producing for their client base. I thank Philip Treacy, Stephen Jones, Albertus Swanepoel and others for getting head wear back on the runways and magazines again.
I am a business woman who designs and produces couture head wear. That is an important distinction from being an artist trying to start a business- which was me at the very beginning. I think it is as important (if not more) to make solid business decisions as it is to be a strong head wear designer. I know there is a want for impeccable quality and design. I am mindful of margins but I am not going to sacrifice anything to inferior materials or output. There are so many mass-produced operations that make it difficult for the designer/ small business to make headway in head wear. If I cannot scale my business right now, I am ok with that. I am in it for the long haul.
Q) What are some of your favorite pieces? I absolutely LOVE abunai yo!, pixie, and cut the mustard.
Thank you! ‘abunai yo!’ is definitely a favorite of mine too. I would like to say “my favorite piece is the one I haven’t made yet” but that wouldn’t be entirely true. My favorite piece is actually an “up-cycled” cashmere beret I made for my grandmother when she was battling cancer. I will never forget how her bright blue eyes sparkled in it. You feel so helpless when a loved one is ill and it felt good to provide some comfort to her. Along those lines, I just finished designing head scarves for a new line of accessories for cancer patients, Be In beCause, launching later this fall. Proceeds benefit cancer research-related programs in Chicago.
If you’re a hat enthusiast, you must get one of Tonya’s hats. She’s sure to be the next Stephen Jones – and wouldn’t you rather buy American?