Getting To Know Elizabeth Hawes, 1903-1971

By Kitty Weiss Krupat

A brief profile of the American fashion designer, Elizabeth Hawes, appeared in T: The New York Times Style Magazine on Sunday, June 15. The essay, by Alice Gregory, is titled  The Most Brilliant Fashion Designer, and it starts this way:

Introducing Elizabeth Hawes: genius writer, wry cultural commentator, perverse humorist, gifted artist and truly modern thinker. You’ve never heard of her.

 Well, I, for one, have heard of her. She is the subject of my unfinished dissertation, and I agree.  She was all those things. More people should know about her, and not just because she was a pioneering fashion designer or a “premature” second-wave feminist. Elizabeth Hawes was a life-long socialist, an ardent anti-fascist, a labor advocate, and an intellectual who was always interested in issues of class. In her work, she combined aesthetic principles with political economy to produce a unique vision of fashion design.

Consider this passage from Hurry Up Please, It’s Time, one of my favorites among nine books written by Elizabeth Hawes:

….no one is more hampered in his or her work today than the artist, no matter what his field. When that artist is as closely bound to commerce as is the dress designer, the hampering of her work is obviously traceable to the same things which prevent a third of a nation from being adequately clothed, housed and fed. A dress designer would have to be blind and deaf not to conclude that her own well-being, as well as the desire for the beautiful, are bound and tied to that of the whole country, the world: tied to jobs, security, and peace for the majority of the people.

Alice Gregory’s article on Hawes is good on its own terms, but here are some things about Hawes you won’t learn much about from the piece:

Gregory does say that Hawes’ first book, Fashion is Spinach, is a political and feminist critique of the fashion industry. What she doesn’t say is that it was on The New York Times Best-Seller List for quite a few weeks. Hawes wasn’t exactly a household name, but she was well-known in her own time.

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True, Hawes had studied haute couture in Paris and had quite a few wealthy and famous clients—the actor Katharine Hepburn was one. But she went well beyond the world of couture into mass-market production of ready-to-wear clothing for middle-class and working-class women.

In 1940, shortly before the U.S. entered WW 11, Hawes gave up her fashion business to become an editor at PM, a left-leaning tabloid in New York, allied with the anti-fascist Popular Front. It had a substantial readership of 150,000. At PM, Hawes wrote “News for Living,” a column for working women that provided advice on a range of every-day problems, including how to balance domestic responsibilities with work outside the home; how to prepare economical meals; and how to dress fashionably but practically on a limited budget. Her columns were read by thousands of people every day, including agents of the FBI, who kept her under surveillance for the rest of her life.

In 1943, Hawes sold her business and went to work on the assembly line at the Wright Aeronautical defense plant in Paterson, New Jersey. There, she became a member of the UAW. Out of that experience, she wrote Why Women Cry or Wenches with Wrenches.

Almost in passing, Gregory mentions that Hawes went to Detroit “to become a union organizer.” Specifically: In 1944, Hawes joined the staff of the UAW and was the first woman to head the union’s Education Department. Fairly quickly, Hawes ran afoul of political battles inside the UAW. It isn’t clear to me whether she was pushed out of the union or left on her own. But her book, Hurry up Please, It’s Time, is a revealing account of her year at the UAW. It is a moving story about solidarity among women activists in the union, but it is also a mince-no-words critique of Walter Reuther, leader of the anti-communist faction inside the UAW. Was Hawes herself a member of the Communist Party? She says no, but I’m not convinced.

There is more:  her marriage to black-listed film-maker, Joseph Losey; her complex social, political, and sexual relationships on the island of St. Croix; her late-career collaboration with designer-activist Rudi Gernreich, who popularized the mini-skirt and the topless bathing suit. He was also a founding member of the Matachine Society, an early gay rights organization. I should finish that dissertation. Or write the screen-play. But if I don’t, you can read more about Elizabeth Hawes in Michael Denning’s The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century, published by Verso. There is also a biography, Radical by Design: The Life and Style of Elizabeth Hawes, by Bettina Berch.   

Kitty Weiss Krupat is the former Associate Director for Worker Education at The Murphy Institute

Photo by AshtonPal via flickr (CC-BY-NC-ND).