Bonnie Cashin. (Photos courtesy of the Stephanie Lake Collection)
Stephanie Lake was a graduate student when she first met Bonnie Cashin. Walking into the dynamic designer’s UN Plaza apartment in 1997, she noticed a brightly dyed fox coat thrown across one of the sofas. “Bonnie immediately told me things about it, that everything thrown back on a chair should look as beautiful inside as out. She was always thinking cinematically and about the life of a coat,” Lake recalls now. “Hanging in your closet, where it should be a joy when you open the door, on your body where it will function in all the ways it needs to for your activity and climate, and then when you take it off – where will it go? On someone’s arm, on a chair, on a sofa.”
Nearly 20 years after they became friends, her book Bonnie Cashin: Chic is Where You Find It is out this week. I’m an ardent admirer of Cashin’s work, and it’s the fulsome biography I’ve been hoping for almost as long as Lake’s been writing it, not least because it confirms both a philosophy of living and a dressing sensibility that seems quintessentially modern. She may have been born in 1907 but Bonnie Cashin could teach today’s fashion a few timeless lessons.
Lake has a PhD in decorative arts, design history and material culture and – thanks to the designer’s cooperation and total archival access for the years leading up to her death – wrote her doctoral dissertation on the maverick. When Cashin died in 2000 at the age of 92, she further entrusted her personal archive and effects to Lake. It’s taken numerous exhibitions and several years of sorting material to give Cashin the book she deserves.
Given Lake’s unique relationship with the late designer, the project evolved from being a more academic design history into a book that, as Lake hopes, makes readers “feel like they’re really entering Bonnie’s world.” The challenge was tailoring nearly a century of ideas to 300 pages.
An intellectual peer of Eames, Nelson and Noguchi, Cashin was a self-proclaimed industrial designer of clothes who thought of her garments “as an adjunct to a scene,” Lake writes. “She looked at architecture, interior design and clothing as different layers of environment that defined an individual and an era.”
Much of that is due to the theatrical context of her formative years. California-born and -raised, Cashin (of Armenian descent – her surname was originally Keosheyan) had such outsized talent and drive that she began working professionally while still in high school. She was hired as head costume designer for Fanchon and Marco vaudeville productions, then for the Roxyettes showgirls in New York. A fateful stage presentation attended by Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow lead to her first design job in the fashion industry in 1937 – for suit manufacturer Adler & Adler – before she worked at Hollywood studio Twentieth Century Fox and designed 60 films, from Anna and the King of Siam to Laura (this, while also designing clothes for the stars’ everyday wardrobes). Working with entertainers cemented one of her design priorities: thinking up textured and colourful garments that above all allowed freedom of movement – especially notable in the 1950s as one of the few respites from the constricting New Look.
She was also a renegade of seasonless dressing. She coined the term layering (what she called “a striptease in reverse”) and nested pared-down and utility-minded traditional shapes in clothes often constructed from atypical and nongarment materials. A 1954 fit-and-flare cocktail dress came in seafoam green leather, for example.
Every idiosyncratic particular of Cashin’s creations was in its way pioneering: tunics over suede leggings; ponchos for keeping warm in a convertible; brass turn locks and kiss-lock pockets in clothing for going hands-free; the iconic tote modelled on a plain paper shopping bag; an edited Seven Easy Pieces wardrobing concept (in 1975, a decade before Donna Karan); or her signature Noh coat, an unfitted garment of Japanese samurai she re-worked in different materials every season – including the pink-tinted fox coat Lake first espied in 1997, draped over that couch.
Yet in spite of decades of esteem in and outside the industry, Cashin seems unknown and overlooked today. According to Lake that’s largely because of the way she chose to operate in order to retain complete creative control – without an employer, investor or design assistants, though her mother Eunice, a dressmaker, was indispensable from the beginning as the chief translator of her daughter’s ideas and sketches into patterns and garments.
Her innovations are now so widely adopted that Cashin’s distinctive sensibility is part of today’s clothing vernacular. “Everyone who knows about Bonnie is a passionate fan of her work and reveres what she did,” Lake says. “And people who don’t know her will be shocked at how recognizable she is because her influence is unavoidable.” What is left to explore is Cashin’s creative philosophy. The how and the why examined by Lake, much of it in Cashin’s own compelling words, are ideas especially overdue for rediscovery.
Over decades, Cashin championed relaxed informality and ease in design to improve overall quality of life. In the 1960s she campaigned for a better system to compensate creators affected by the flourishing knockoff economy (a problem even then), sought out high-quality small manufacturers with ethical production methods, was concerned about the environment and socio-economic disparity and established foundations and initiatives until her retirement in 1985. “Fashion design started out as an art form for my own needs of expression,” Cashin once said, “and unfolded into a way of life.”