Stuck on a 5-hour bicoastal plane ride, I indulged in something unavailable to me here in NYC – watching TV. Laziness and the switch to digital has cut me off from ‘normal’ TV watching, in that without a converter box the only input I get is from whatever Netflix decides to stream. This eliminates a good part of the ‘normal TV’ watching experience, including exposure to reality shows, local news, and especially commercials. I was annoyed to see commercials targeting young people heading back to school, attempting to convince them they required a wardrobe overhaul to appear sophisticated and cool in the eyes of their peers. The commercials assume these children have autonomy over their clothing at a younger age, that there is spare income to spend on a new wardrobe, and that new outfits will somehow circumvent the cruel stratifying and sorting the first few weeks of school bring, forget sever the baggage of past years.
Of course, every magazine currently touting the ‘hot new trends’ of fall is doing the same thing to an older crowd. As a brisk tonic to pages and pages of ‘what’s in and what’s out!’ for the brief window of three months before the entire merry-go-round starts up again for a new season, I highly recommend reading Elizabeth Hawes’ Fashion Is Spinach. Written in 1938, the young designer’s tale of making it in the fashion industry is a delicious tell-all told with the dry wit of Dorothy Parker. Her opinions on the state of ‘fast fashion’ and the difference between ‘fashion’ and ‘style holds as true today as ever.
Elizabeth Hawes’ first foray into fashion was as New York Times’ Paris fashion correspondent, under the pen name ‘Parasite’. She was later one of the first designers to establish a made-to-order boutique in New York, instead of Paris, and with a combination of business acumen and creativity it survived the Great Depression. Her aim was to promote a uniquely American fashion style and teach women to wear what suited them and their life, instead of trying to emulate ‘Parisian Glamour’. She successfully promoted her ready-to-wear items through the 30s and 40s, and in the spirit of comfort and practicality debuted a colorful line of men’s clothing in 1937. During the war years she published a book on women in the workplace called Why Women Cry, and remained vocal about women’s equality and rights for the rest of her life. She was raked over the coals during the McCarthy years for her outspoken support of unions and feminism, and for a time lived in the Virgin Islands where she penned 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; Seen, Listened to Monthly by Some 340,000,000 American Women an early critique of media representation of women. She wrote a sequel to Fashion Is Spinach called It’s Still Spinach in 1954, and passed away in NYC’s Hotel Chelsea in 1971.
I’ve excerpted some of my favorite quotes from Fashion Is Spinach below – the full text is available on the Internet Archive to download or read in whatever format suits you best.
On travel and education:
“After having my appendix out that summer, 1922, I went back (to Vassar) for sophomore year and discovered economics…Senior year I spent four long months in the library reading every word ever spoken or written by Ramsay MacDonald and rewrote it all into a thesis on which I did not one ray of individual thinking—but I got an A.”
“I was not seasick and learned to do my first drinking on that voyage [to France]. I had three hundred dollars and a diamond ring. It had been one of my grandmother’s earrings. The family had it set and said I could always pawn it to get home. I still have it.” (Note: SO BALLER)
“Cheap American food was disheartening, but there wasn’t much time for eating it anyway. Bathtub gin after French wine was fortunately disagreeable enough to my palate to save me a good many headaches.”
On the fashion industry overall:
“The proudly American clothing boast is that all American women can have beautiful clothes. It goes along with the other legends such as that all boys can get to be President, all children get a good education, and everyone in the United States has “an American standard of living”.
“The passion which has been created for being chic leads to almost any thing, probably including murder.”
“Style doesn’t change every month or year. It only changes as often as there is a real change in the point of view and the lives of the people for whom it is produced.”
“One big difference between a specialty shop and a department store is that the former has carpets on the floor and the latter has none.”
“Being chic was not only created “on the Continent” but it fundamentally can only flourish in that unhurried atmosphere. It takes a background of leisured people with secure bankrolls who don’t have or want to worry about what’s going on at the office, to produce chic and keep it alive. It takes large houses, in town and in country, with plenty of servants who run everything smoothly, without requiring too many orders.”
“I’ve seen some quite good designers come and go because they couldn’t scream loud enough to attract attention, and had no money to pay someone else to do it for them.”
On Fashion vs. Style:
“Fashion is a mystery because it’s something which developed with no relation to the public taste or need. Sometimes, if it is highly enough promoted, a fashion gets by for a short time. Sometimes a fashion turns out to be amusing, like tying a handkerchief around your head instead of wearing a hat. That, in fact, threatens to become a style. It is so simple and practical.”
“We have an assortment of stylish women and girls in America and are developing more…They are perfectly sure of themselves and their positions, their clothes and their friends. They are not often photographed or written about.”
“[the fashionable woman] is a large part of the middle class with some money to spend on clothes, and most of the nouveau riche with plenty of money to throw around. She tries to be chic and misses. Nobody ever told her about style. She’s fashionable, God help her.”