Fashioning Americana

· Norell: Dean of American Fashion at the Museum at FIT ·

Before hearing about the Museum at FIT’s early spring exhibition, I must admit I had never heard of Norman Norell. “The Dean of American Fashion,” the exhibition called him. What did that mean and who was this man who was worthy of an exhibition though I’d never heard of him?

Turns out he was a seminal American designer who enjoyed prominence through the middle part of the twentieth century. Starting his life as a costume designer, he worked throughout his life until he fully owned his own business at the end of his life. Known as “The American Balenciaga,” he prided construction and cut over other aspects of fashion and just wanted to make women look attractive. Only he wasn’t creating couture pieces, he was creating ready-to-wear.

Despite this, he aimed for the perfect fit, building in extra room for hems to be adjusted and the like. For fifty years, he dominated American fashion, founding the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) and elevating the status of the Seventh Avenue “rag trade.”

The exhibition at the Museum at FIT brought his clothes full circle, displaying them under Seventh Avenue, just steps from where they were originally created. A quick trip through the exhibition and it’s clear why Norell had such an influence. His clean, simple but elegant garments epitomize mid-century American style. They’re classic without being stuffy, simple but fun, glamorous but not ostentatious. They remind of things that Jackie Kennedy, Grace Kelly, and even Blair Waldorf might wear.

Many are timeless and could, indeed, still be worn today. Sailor suits and impeccably tailored coats and suits dominate the exhibition, while a display of sequined “mermaid dresses” is the literal center of the display, demonstrating American glamour at its best. There are styles from the thirties to the seventies showing a full range of silhouettes, trends, and embellishment, demonstrating Norell’s ability to adapt with the times.

And with not nearly enough time to fully appreciate the exhibition, I became a Norman Norell-convert, appreciating the simple elegance of his ready-to-wear designs.

If only I could have taken some of these styles home with me.


The Museum at FIT’s Norell: Dean of American Fashion ran from 9 February – 14 April 2018.

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