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Legacy of Designer/Activist Elizabeth Hawes Explored in FIT Museum Exhibition

The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology is kicking off Women’s History Month with a new exhibition showcasing Elizabeth Hawes, the fashion designer, journalist, critic, labor leader and social activist who blurred gender roles well ahead of her time, and brought ready-to-wear fashion options to the masses.

From March 1-26, the on-campus museum in Midtown Manhattan will feature the garments and books authored by Hawes, as well as photos, videos and memorabilia, in an exhibition titled “Elizabeth Hawes: Along Her Own Lines”.

The first part of the four-part experience highlights Hawes’ written work and social activism. “Clothes with a Purpose” includes books with titles like “Fashion is Spinach”, “Radical by Design” and “Why Women Cry” as well as the file the FBI kept on her dating back to 1940 after she quit her fashion business to become an editor at a left-leaning New York newspaper called PM, which at the height of the Red Scare, drew the interest of J. Edgar Hoover’s overreaching agency.

Student-curator Maria Ferrara said nothing was known about the FBI file on Hawes until 2010, long after the designer’s death in 1971 at the age of 68.

“The really tragic thing about it is that she never really realized there was an FBI case on her,” Ferrara said. “She began to lose clients because these FBI agents…were going to people and saying, ‘Elizabeth Hawes is a communist.’”

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The pieces in the collection are the gifted property of FIT, but “Along Her Lines” will be its first exhibition on Hawes.

“She wanted to make high-end clothing more accessible to the masses and so she started going into ready-to-wear,” Ferrera said. “And she created some of the first gender-neutral, nonbinary clothing. She created ‘skirts for men’ in the 1930s.”

Unfortunately, Hawes’ skirts for men aren’t on display in the second part of the FIT exhibition titled “Men Might Like Skirts”, but there are her “kimonos for men” and a colorful knit swimwear bottom kept under glass featuring a multi-colored flag that could pass at any modern Pride rally.

Elizabeth Hawes, multicolor cotton, handknit man’s 
jockey shorts (front view), 1964, USA
Rear view

“I feel like these speak to the queerness and non-gender conforming and all of these ideas [common] today,” Ferrara said. “She was so ahead of her time… tying to politically advocate for women, create nonbinary clothing and tell people to embrace their bodies and their birth, their shapes and all of those things.”

Next to many of the displays, including the swim trunks, is a cartoon skunk on the wall. Ferrara said this is an homage to a prop Hawes would use at her fashion shows wherein a skunk—one that had its spray glands removed—would be part of the show.

“She had a skunk in her design studio and when her clients would come she’d have the runway models come out and they’d walk this skunk,” Ferrara said. “People would see this and freak out.”

The skunk on the wall at the FIT Museum is an homage to Elizabeth Hawes’ ploy of having models walk skunks across the catwalk when putting on fashion shows in her studio.
Matt Hickman/Sourcing Journal

Hawes had a nose for social commentary. Her most famous work, “Fashion is Spinach”, eviscerates the fashion industry of her time, calling 95 percent of it a “useless waste of time and energy.”

More than just a feminist-designer, Hawes sought to break men’s fashion free from its gender role restrictions, too, writing in “Fashion is Spinach” that “Men’s clothes will really be revolutionized when the male asserts his right to be considered as alluring and decorative and beautiful as women.”   

“That’s where she’s criticizing the fashion industry from the inside,” Ferrara said of the book published in 1938. “She believed in style over fashion. She thought changing fashion trends were stupid and kind of classist. Not everybody can keep up with the changing fashion trends, so she was really encouraging people to figure out what their personal style is and connect with themselves.”

It’s an interesting moment for the FIT Museum to examine Hawes for the first time.

Her gender-non-conforming fashions might not raise quite so many eyebrows today, but Ferrara wonders whether her take on modern attitudes would be as progressive as one might imagine.

Multicolor silk men’s kimono
style jacket, circa 1962, USA. 
Gift of Barnes Riznik

“I see her as so ahead of her time, but at the same time, you know, she is of her era, too,” Ferrara said.

Hawes’ legacy is also complicated seen through the fashion industry’s recent focus on sustainability and fight against “fast fashion,” which, it could be argued, Hawes’ ready-to-wear mission helped spawn.

“Maybe it’s about balance, right?” Ferrara said. “Fast-fashion to the point where a large number of people can have access to high-quality clothes, but not past the point where the industry today is one of the world’s major polluters.”

Evening dress and bolero of striped gray silk with self-fringe

The exhibition also displays Hawes’ contributions as a talented designer of elegant dresses on a classically slender female form, designs for maternity wear and a line of loose turtleneck tops from the 1940s that look almost as though they could be paired with go-go boots and fit right into a 1960s Mod couture. These are on display in the “Who the Hell are You?” segment of the exhibition.

For Ferrara, the life of a Renaissance woman like Hawes reminds her of why she wanted to get into fashion museum studies in the first place.

“I like the public outreach part of it and I think that’s why I respect Elizabeth so much; that she was trying to make fashion more accessible,” Ferrara said. “Most designers are very fashion-focused. And really, I don’t think there’s been another designer that has written so critically about the fashion industry. She was really radical—like revolutionary.”

The 26-day exhibition includes a panel discussion, “Fashion Is Spinach: The Life and Work of Elizabeth Hawes”. In a conversation moderated by author and podcaster April Calahan, professors and fashion historians Lourdes Font of FIT and Francesca Granata of The New School will discuss the importance of Hawes in American fashion. The event will be held at FIT’s Katie Murphy Amphitheatre on March 7 at 5:30 pm.