Quantcast
This 1930s American Designer Created the First 'Pussy Dress

pandora c1d42

Meet Elizabeth Hawes, the 20th century fashion designer every feminist needs to know.

Fashions come and fashions go, but if there is one trend that has recently ruled the runways, it has been fashion’s love for all things feminist. Cue a collective sigh of relief. Where there were once pussy hats on the streets, there are now also labia dresses on the runway (and labia pants in Janelle Monae's "PYNK" music video). Simply look no further than Namilia’s Spring/Summer 2018 collection and Thom Browne’s recent inclusion of a gray floor-length gown complete with breast and vagina motifs in his Fall/Winter 2018-19 show.

namilia 97501Namilia via Instagram

ADVERTISEMENT

pynk f4e47Still image from Janelle Monae's "PYNK" music video
As is to be expected, fashion’s current exploration of the vagina has garnered everything from sneers and baffled descriptions of fabric lady parts, to thoughtful critiques on a new feminism-meets-fashion landscape. Yet, for one fashion figure all but lost to history, fashion’s newfound feminist bent would most likely be very pleasing, if not perhaps a little perplexing. Meet Elizabeth Hawes, badass business woman, union organizer, author and fashion designer. You’ve probably heard of a few of her contemporaries, like say Gabrielle Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli. In fact, you’ve probably heard of the companies she worked with and women she dressed, like Lord and Taylor and Katharine Hepburn. But what you probably don’t know is that not only is Elizabeth widely recognized in fashion history circles as America’s first couture designer, in 1936 she also masterminded the first "pussy dress."

hawes 55fdaElizabeth Hawes photographed by Ralph Steiner in 1938, via Wikimedia Commons

You could call Elizabeth a fashion activist, a designer, a writer and a women’s rights advocate, but none of the above would fully capture the extent of what Hawes stood for. Fully aware of her privileged background and the benefits that came with her Vassar education, she worked tirelessly to revolutionize the fashion system. As early as the late 1920s, she advocated for American design and set out to demolish the style system that placed France at the top of a fashion food chain and left most American women with little access to quality, stylish, affordable clothes. But not only that, Elizabeth also promoted the idea of gender-fluidity in dressing. Developing the concept of “ambisexual” style, she fought for function and comfort in design, for creative freedom and for breaking free from gender stereotyping and the stranglehold of trend. She even questioned the Western cultural forces that dictated what was and was not proper for men and women to wear.

But back to that "pussy dress." Because if there was one piece of work that encapsulated Hawes’ fashion ethos, it was that. Properly named the Pandora dress, Hawes' intricate cream and red nod to the clitoris—complete with red triangle detailing—offered up a savvy take on the misogyny embedded within the Greek Pandora myth. With it, she created a feminist statement that could infiltrate any high society event without raising an eyebrow, single-handedly mastering the art of subversion while making the wearer feel comfortable in her identity as well her clothes.


dresses 17573"Pandora" dress, via Met Museum

If anything, by drawing inspiration from a feminist reading of the myth by which Pandora’s box is understood to represent the womb and women’s sexuality to be dangerous, the Pandora ensemble spoke directly to how Elizabeth continually sought to demystify and illustrate repression. Its feminist power was driven by the way it gave the wearer the ability to proudly wear her otherness. After all, according to Hawes’ biographer Bettina Berch, for Elizabeth, to be a feminist was to be a she-wolf, a woman who celebrated the way she differed from men. For her, the feminist as she-wolf should have the power and choice to have a husband and family while also enjoying all the ambition, creativity and intelligence that came with a career.

As April Calahan, Curator of Manuscript Collections and Special Collections at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology and one of the voices behind the podcast “Dressed: The History of Fashion” explains, Elizabeth “was beating a drum that makes perfect sense to us now, but which didn’t make sense to people in the 1930s and 1940s.” She was “fiercely feminist, but her feminism was part of a larger rational humanism that she felt towards the world… There was always an altruistic motivation behind how she deviated from social norms. It wasn’t like she was doing it for shock value,” Calahan elaborates. “It is part of what her real subtle genius was,” she adds.

However, if Hawes was sly in the way she questioned misogyny, she was certainly more forthright and vocal about her beliefs in other ways. Writing the book Fashion Os Spinach, (“Fashion is Bullshit” in non-1930s vernacular) a best-selling takedown of the fashion establishment, she lived and breathed her beliefs. She started her own business, confronted the practices of New York’s seventh avenue garment industry, and advocated for working women’s access to childcare. To the shock of many, Elizabeth even opted to wear jeans for her 1937 wedding.

“Sometimes her feminism was explicit, in the manner in which she designed the Pandora dress. The other way was through her enduring dedication to making clothes practical, functional and comfortable. Not simply for women, but also for men. She wasn’t afraid to not adhere to whatever the predominant silhouette was,” April contends. Arguing for Elizabeth’s mainstream recognition as an American fashion heroine and feminist iconoclast, Calahan explains that while Italian designer Schiaparelli is widely remembered for her obviously transgressive work, Hawes was just as progressive. She just “had to spoon-feed ideas to people. These were really radical ideas for the American market.”

tarts f492c"The Tarts," via Met Museum

All debate on subtlety aside, it is safe to suggest that today Hawes would be dubbed a disruptor, a multi-hyphenate and a girl boss. With a hint to her three years spent working in Paris as a fashion correspondent, consultant, fashion apprentice and copyist producing replicas of French fashion, she herself opted to call herself a “Parasite.” However, look at how Elizabeth used fashion as a platform from which to share her democratic ideals, the descriptor of early intersectional feminist seems more fitting. Perhaps, informed by her own bisexuality, perhaps informed by the life and loves she fostered on the Caribbean island of Saint Croix and the racism she witnessed there. In either case, as Calahan suggests, “She was an advocate on all sides…She gave a shit.”

Today, Elizabeth’s work invites us to recognize the extent to which fashion hypocrisies persist. Especially with regards to the rise of more mainstream feminist, gender-fluid fashion. Yes, global manufacturing practices have created a broader sense of fashion democracy for the American woman. Yes, we live in a time when we can freely wear jeans and where a dress such as Thom Browne’s can be shown to explore ways of seeing the body. Yes, Hawes would surely cheer at the sight of Jaden Smith and Kanye West stepping out in skirts. However, the binaries Hawes’ wanted to destroy do still exist. Fashion legend has simply adapted with the times.

Take a look at the world through Hawes’ eyes, and it is plain to see that even feminist fashion is still wrapped up in a degree of mythmaking. Bold slogan tees may exclaim that we are all feminists, but in reality, not all women have equal access to feminist fashion statements. What may be celebrated as an empowering feminist statement on a tall, thin white fashion model on a runway is often still derided as trashy, vagina cleavage-revealing and narcissistic on a celebrity such as Kim Kardashian, whose body and identity does not meet the "correct" array of arbitrary cultural criteria. American workers may have achieved many of the labor rights Hawes rallied for, yet our modern fashion system, complete with its cheap versions of slogan t-shirts, relies on low-paid women garment workers abroad. To think like Hawes is to recognize that certain class, color and gender identities still provide more access to these feminist fashions than others. And that sounds distinctly like spinach don’t you think?

top image via Met Museum

More from BUST 

Janelle Monae And Grimes Celebrate Vaginas In "PYNK" Music Video

3 New Books About Reproductive Health You Need To Read

Whatever Happened To Those Girls Who Signed "Purity Pledges"? Hint: It's Not Good

 

Brit abroad, full-time Francophile and flapper wannabe Rachel Huber is a writer, translator and content strategist now based in California. Her favorite food is the Proustian Madeleine. You can follow her on Instagram @rachuber.

Support Feminist Media! During these troubling political times, independent feminist media is more vital than ever. If our bold, uncensored reporting on women’s issues is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $25, $50, or whatever you can afford, to protect and sustain BUST.com. Thanks so much—we can’t spell BUST without U.