Mid-century designer Norman Norell was admired and worn by some of the most stylish women in Texas and was championed by Neiman Marcus. Here, pop culture fashion expert Gordon Kendall reflects on Norell’s career, the recent retrospective at The Museum at Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, and the designer’s enduring appeal.
Photography courtesy of Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology, Zach Hilty and the University of Indiana Archives
DEAN OF GLAMOUR
Abilene, Texas. An unlikely place, surely, for an introduction to one of America’s foremost fashion designers. But it was there, on my grandmother’s dressing table, where I first saw the famous pyramid-shaped bottles, boldly bearing the name Norell. While she did not collect the namesake clothes, my grandmother Grace Gordon wore that fragrance, lovingly purchased from Grissom’s or Minter’s department stores, as proudly as if she had closets full of Norells. Years later, I learned why the name Norell – Norman Norell, that is – meant so much to her, to fashion, and what it can mean to current fashion lovers.
Quite simply, Norman Norell was among the best contemporary American designers. The Museum at The Fashion Institute of Technology, in New York’s Garment District, recently exhibited Norell: Dean of American Fashion. Displayed were garments from Norell’s heyday, the period from 1960 to 1972. Far from dated relics, each piece was an iconic example of what it meant, and still means to be considered the best in fashion. In terms of design, construction – and let’s not forget that unseen yet so important fashion element, sophistication – the exhibit was a master class in fashion excellence.
Norell, born Norman David Levinson in 1900 in Noblesville, Indiana, early on became known as Norman Norell and by the 1920s had worked in Hollywood and become an established New York fashion designer. He partnered with Anthony Traina from WWII until 1960 and worked under the Traina-Norell label. In 1960, he bought the company outright and began production solely under the name Norell. The fashion-aware will recall another great American designer, Bill Blass, was also from Indiana. While Blass brought sporty informality to off-the-rack fashion, Norell focused, unabashedly, on ready-to-wear garments made to the quality standards of French couture. Over time, he became known as The American Balenciaga, so exacting were his standards. In fact, in a 1958 New York Times article, he was listed along with Charles James, Pauline Trigère and James Galanos as the most original of American designers.
“Norman Norell personified American elegance in the mid-20th century and his timeless designs remain relevant today,” shares Decades Fashion and Fashion Director Cameron Silver, who runs H by Halston and H. Halston and wrote the best-selling Decades: A Century of Fashion about vintage fashion. “From the glamour of a paillette-encrusted iconic mermaid gown to the sparse simplicity of a perfectly tailored sheath dress, Norell dressed women for a myriad of occasions providing a fashionable wardrobe of unparalleled quality, subtle yet intrinsic craftsmanship, and insuring the wearer looked fabulous but appropriate. He became the first icon of American fashion and his clothes continue to be worn by discerning women who are liberated from following trends.”
Norell knew great dresses begin with great designs. His icons include simple chemise and tank dresses and gowns, razor sharp pleated skirts, capelet jackets, and gracefully fitted coats. He often looked to the 1920s for creative inspiration for these styles and routinely showed flapper-inspired day and cocktail wear. He inspired designers around him with his slim silhouettes. Ever the imaginative designed, Norell even channeled his own childhood with boy’s sailor suit styles re-imagined as nautical-themed evening gowns.
The exceptional craftsmanship of his suits gave his designs great popularity for day to evening wear. Striking in their simplicity, a Norell suit would skim the body, making the wearer the focus of attention rather than the clothes. Daytime drama came in a range of colors, from inky dark shades to warm neutrals like beige and camel, as well as a range of jewel tones and bright, clear pastels. The colors were deftly mixed, and the garments were punctuated by large contrasting buttons. On occasion, Norell opted for stripes, dots, and checks.
During his career, Norell worked as a costume designer on Broadway, making the costumes for the Ziegfeld Follies and the Cotton Club, so he knew how to turn out the sparkle in his creations. It is no wonder his sleek, sophisticated American glamour was visible in all his work, from the daytime suits to jersey separates and from menswear-inspired outerwear to his hallmark “mermaid” dresses. His designs attracted an A-list clientele that included Lauren Bacall, Babe Paley, Marilyn Monroe, Lena Horne, Dinah Shore, Jacqueline Kennedy, and Lady Bird Johnson. Some of his clothes can be seen in such films as A Sainted Devil, That Touch of Mink, The Wheeler Dealers, and Klute. Being both classic and modern, Norell’s vintage garments are still sought after and worn today by film stars and even former First Lady Michelle Obama.
Aside from dressing celebrities, hemlines were the fashion question of Norell’s time. Mini… midi… maxi… which was it to be? His solution was perhaps the most elegant and flattering: to the knee for day and cocktail, and dropping directly to floor-length for evening. In the increasingly body-conscious 1960s and early 1970s, his designs were not billowing ball gowns, but long dresses that even if full-skirted, followed the body and its movements.
At the time, New York’s Garment District was home to top-quality belt makers. As a result, many of Norell’s day and evening designs featured belts, giving the garment and the wearer further definition. In a mantra dear to many Texas fashion mavens, Norell declared, “In the evening, you have to knock ‘em dead with glitter!” And indeed he did with his “mermaid” dresses, perhaps the style with which he is most associated. These long sheath dresses – sometimes high-necked, other times held by thin straps – were all covered in hand-set sequins, shimmering on their wearers as if they had been dipped in molten gold, silver, platinum, or a multitude of gemstone colors. Designer James Galanos, often compared to Norell, once remarked he admired his fashion colleague for his restraint. No matter how bold, Norell’s strength lay in simple designs without excessive decoration and never with gimmicks or faddish trends.
KING OF CUSTOM
With great design came Norell’s great construction. His Seventh Avenue workroom employed the best patternmakers, seamstresses, and sequin and bead embroiderers. Seams were straight-edge precise, buttons and zippers hand-set, allowances generous enough so garments hung evenly. Bust darts, common in almost all other women’s ready-to-wear, then and now, did not exist; there was adequate and supportive interfacing for definition. Furthermore, he bought one-of-a-kind European fabrics and trims from the same makers as French designers. His signature belts were custom made for the specific style of each dress.
Then there were the furs. During Norell’s time, the best domestic furriers were just blocks away and his use of fur as trimming reflected this. He only used fine ranch mink and if-you-have-to-ask-the-price golden Russian sable. Norell’s simplicity was anything but and it cost appropriately. Retail prices for Norell garments ranged from the mid-hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars. In other words, as much as many cars of his era. Clothes like Norell’s were certainly not “fast fashion.” They took time, sometimes too much time to make. Legendary Texas retailer Stanley Marcus lamented Norell’s inevitably late deliveries, often near the end of the season, rendering his clothes nearly unsalable without a loyal following.
But that didn’t deter the luxury store from awarding Norell with the Neiman Marcus Award for Distinguished Service in the Field of Fashion in 1942. Other accolades would follow with awards like Coty American Fashion Critics’ awards in 1943, 1951, 1956, 1958, 1966; Parsons Medal for Distinguished Achievement in 1956; Sunday Times of London International Fashion Award in 1963; City of New York Bronze Medallion in 1972; and an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts from the Pratt Institute in 1962. In 1965, Norell was elected the second president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. In 1968, he created and marketed Norell, the first Revlon fragrance named after an American fashion designer, which many of our grandmothers bought in droves.
Marcus, to use his own words, had a mystique. So, too, did Norell. Today, it would be called “brand equity,” but no matter the name, what of it Norell had was certainly extraordinary. So much so that even a grumbling Marcus and other important retailers would return to New York, after the other designers’ shows, just for Norell’s. His were not just any show, however. They were always in his white carpeted, Seventh Avenue showroom, by strictly limited invitation only. They were always in the evening; they were always black tie formal affairs. The clothes were always the focus and the format was always set. Following cocktails, Norell showed day clothes. Next, the lights went up, and more cocktails and conversation followed. Then came late-day and evening turn outs. Sophisticated clothes shown as they were always intended to be worn.
Edna Ferber, in her novel Giant, describes a fashionable West Texas character as wearing the kind of clothes that are “neatly plain and simple… and cost like Hell!” This could be said about anything by Norman Norell. I’m not sure my grandmother Grace read that novel, but I thought of her at the conclusion of the Fashion Institute of Technology show, where gigantic factice bottles of Norell’s fragrance, just like the ones my grandmother prized, were displayed. Far away from Abilene at the corner of New York’s 7th Avenue and West 27th Street, my fashion knowledge came full circle.