Hattie Carnegie (15 March 1880 — 22 February 1956) was a fashion entrepreneur based in New York City from the 1920s to the 1960s. She was born in Vienna, Austria-Hungary as Henrietta Kanengeiser.
The second oldest of seven children, Hattie Carnegie's father was an Austrian Jewish artist and tailor, thought to have introduced her to the world of fashion.
Carnegie, who emigrated with her family to the United States at the age of six years old in 1886, was known for her elegant couture collection and secondary ready-to-wear lines. Her company was revolutionary in the sense that it was one of the first to introduce ready-to-wear to the high-end market. She pioneered the 'head-to-hem' boutique concept that paved the way for the future success of Ralph Lauren in America. Her company discovered some of the most prominent American fashion designers of the twentieth century, such as Norman Norell, Pauline Trigère and James Galanos; for nearly a decade, the made-to-order department was headed by Pauline Fairfax Potter.
Hattie Carnegie was originally a milliner and owned a successful shop on East Tenth Street in New York named Carnegie - Ladies' Hatter . Despite the fact she had never sewed a seam in her life and had no formal training, she swiftly opened a dress shop on the Upper West Side and finally in 1923, she opened the famous Hattie Carnegie boutique at 42 East 49th street, close to the current address of Saks Fifth Avenue.
Carnegie enjoyed tremendous success throughout her career but the proudest moment came when she designed the Women's Army Corps (WAC) uniform in 1950. They were adopted for wear on New Year's Day 1951. On 1 June 1952, Hattie received the Congressional Medal of Freedom for the WAC uniform design and for her many other charitable and patriotic contributions. The WAC design was so timelessly elegant that it was still in use for women's U.S. Army uniforms in 1968.
Hattie Carnegie designs are in the collection holdings of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; and at the Museum of Lifestyle & Fashion History in Boynton Beach, Florida.
"Simple, Beautiful Clothes"
Carnegie's belief in simplicity fit perfectly with the streamlining of 1930s design. She believed that "simple, beautiful clothes … enhance the charm of the woman who wears them. If you have a dress that is too often admired, be suspicious of it." The dress, she insisted, must fit and not overpower the woman who wears it. She was unabashedly devoted to Paris fashion and made regular buying trips throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Yet while she was a self-declared Francophile, she adapted French style to American tastes by offering a blend of style and comfort that suited many fashion-conscious Americans who still wanted their clothes to have a French flair.
Designing for the Middle Class
Carnegie's expensive original designer clothes were out of reach for many Americans, but this did not limit her influence on American design. Hers were among some of the most widely copied designs by popularly priced designers. As the decade wore on, Carnegie added a modestly priced, ready-to-wear line of clothing that proved to be the most lucrative of her enterprises. She made her modestly priced clothes more available to the average consumer by permitting some department stores to carry the new line, breaking from her usual practice of selling her clothes at her own shop. This practice secured her influence over both haute couture and popular wear.
For decades Hattie Carnegie's personal taste and fashion sense influenced the styles worn by countless American women. Whether they bought her imported Paris models, the custom designs, the ready-to-wear collections, or the mass market copies of her work, women welcomed Carnegie's discreet good taste as a guarantee of sophistication and propriety. Carnegie's business ability and fashion acumen enabled her to build a small millinery shop into a wholesale and retail clothing and accessory empire and made her name synonymous with American high fashion for almost half a century.
Carnegie's place in fashion history was assured not because of her own designs, but because of her talent for choosing or refining the designs of others. Between the World Wars, the list of couturiers whose models she imported included Lanvin, Vionnet, Molyneux, and Mainbocher—classic stylists—but also select creations for Chanel and Patou, Schiaparelli, and Charles James. In fact, Carnegie claimed in an April 1949 Collier's article to have had a three-year unauthorized exclusive on selling Vionnet models in the early 1920s, a few years before Vionnet started selling "to the trade."
The Custom Salon was generally considered to be the heart of the Hattie Carnegie operation, since it was with made-to-order fashion that Carnegie began. The focus of her business was to interpret European style for American consumers, but the sense of dress she chose to champion was not contained in the minutiae of design. It was instead an approach to fashion that emphasized consummate polish in every outfit. Norman Norell, who was with Carnegie from 1928 to 1940 (primarily as a ready-to-wear designer), remarked in American Fashion (New York, 1975) that he often worked from models that Miss Carnegie had brought back from Paris. He could legitimately claim, however, that he had imprinted his own signature on his designs for the firm, and it is often possible to make an informed attribution of Hattie Carnegie styles to her other designers. Certainly one gown featured in a 1939 magazine layout is recognizably the work of Claire McCardell, who spent two years with the firm.
Carnegie was already established as a taste-maker by the time she added the ready-to-wear division to her company in the 1920s. "Vogue points from Hattie Carnegie" contained her style tips and forecasts for Vogue readers. At the Hattie Carnegie salon, a customer could accessorize her day and evening ensembles with furs, hats, handbags, gloves, lingerie, jewelry, and even cosmetics and perfume— everything, in fact—but shoes.
The Carnegie customer, whatever her age, seems to have been neither girlish nor matronly, but possessed of a certain decorousness. Even the casual clothing in the Spectator Sportswear and Jeunes Filles ready-to-wear departments was elegant rather than playful. The Carnegie Suit, usually an ensemble with dressmaker details in luxury fabrics, traditionally opened her seasonal showings. She often stressed the importance of black as a wardrobe basic, both for day and evening, but was also famous for a shade known as "Carnegie blue." Perhaps Carnegie's preference for 18th-century furnishings in her home relates to the devotion of formality so clearly expressed in her business.
During World War II Carnegie was an impressive bearer of the standard of the haute couture. French style leadership was unavailable, and designs from her custom salon took pride of place in fashion magazines and on the stage, as in the original production of State of the Union by Lindsay and Crouse. Carnegie's leadership was also important to other fashion industries. She had always used fabrics from the best American textile companies, and continued to patronize specialty firms such as Hafner Associates and Onondaga Silks, which were not immersed in war work. She also used fabrics designed and hand-printed by Brook Cadwallader, and continued to do so after French materials again became available. Only after Carnegie's death did the company claim to use exclusively imported fabrics.
Hattie Carnegie died in 1956; the fashion empire she had built survived into the 1970s, but in 1965 the custom salon was closed and the company concentrated on wholesale businesses.
- Epstein, Beryl Williams, Fashion is Our Business, Philadelphia and New York, 1945.
- New York and Hollywood Fashion: Costume Designs from the Brooklyn Museum Collection, New York, 1986.
- Milbank, Caroline Rennolds, New York Fashion: The Evolution of American Style, New York, 1989.
- Steele, Valerie, Women of Fashion: Twentieth Century Design, NewYork, 1991.
- Stegemeyer, Anne, Who's Who in Fashion, Third Edition, New York,1996.