Elizabeth Hawes advertisement, 1938
Elizabeth Hawes advertisement, 1938
A few months ago, April Calahan and Karen Trivette of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Special Collections in New York contacted me to ask if I would interview Gavrik Losey for their Oral History Project. I was thrilled – I am a great admirer of all things FIT, and its Special Collections department was crucial to my research for The American Look: Fashion, Sportswear & the Image of Women in 1930s and 1940s New York (IB Tauris 2009). Indeed, I used many of the fascinating interviews with people connected with American fashion held there to help me to understand the period and its significance.
Of course the fact that it was Gavrik Losey they had asked me to interview was the real draw. Gavrik’s mother is Elizabeth Hawes – celebrated designer, journalist and political activist, and the opportunity to ask him about his memories of growing up under her influence was not to be missed. His father is of great significance too – theatre and film director Joseph Losey was as politically engaged as Hawes, and so Gavrik’s experiences with his parents would open up a key period in American history.
We met this week at The Courtauld on a hot September day, to film the interview. It was fascinating to hear Gavrik’s memories – ultimately I will write about these in more detail, but I wanted to give you a taste of the touching, funny and evocative stories he had to tell. So here are a few of the many things I learnt about in a discussion that lasted well over an hour and which gave amazing insight into Elizabeth Hawes’ significance and so much more.
Gavrik’s earliest memory of his mother relating to dress is picking up pins off the floor of the workroom at her 59th Street establishment. He also learnt how to press clothes at an early age – his mother’s advice? Only iron the parts of each garment that will be seen … He went on to describe her mix of artistry and pragmatism as a designer and her drive to make clothes that fitted contemporary women’s lives. Her interest in colour theory – the idea that each personality type has an appropriate colour palette – extended into the salon’s interior and even their home. Hawes loved to have walls of different shades to set off the ensembles being shown …
He remembered how his mother loved to drape fabric to create new garments – and travelled everywhere with a little, to-scale mannequin, so she could devise new creations. Oh, and that she made samples to her own size, so that she could wear each new collection once it had been shown …
He also told of her wicked sense of humour – which made itself known in the names she gave her garments, including a dramatic multi-coloured striped gown called ‘Alimony’ – which came with a bag in the shape of male genitalia – Gavrik still has this memento of Hawes’ satirical approach to fashion …
He spoke at length about her relationships with contemporary artists and the influence of art on her work. I was especially interested to hear about the impact of Kandinsky on her use of geometric forms and flashes of colour and varied textures in her designs. Look at examples from the 1930s, for example in the Met’s collection, and this insight will open up your eyes to their meanings, I am sure …
Another aspect of his parents and his own life was the importance of political engagement. Gavrik spoke movingly of the harsh impact of FBI investigations into his parents’ activities and the terrible toll this took on their lives and work. It was heartbreaking to hear how agents turned clients and friends against Hawes, warning them of her left-wing sympathies. These files only became available after her death, so she never knew why New York became such an unwelcoming place for her when she returned in the late 1940s to reopen her business after undertaking union and war work.
I am still processing all the incredible things that Gavrik spoke about – he was incredibly generous with his time and his memories and thoughts about his mother’s life and work. It is wonderful that – once catalogued – his interview will be housed at FIT and available to researchers wanting to understand women, dress and politics, issues as fundamentally entwined within Hawes’ work as they are within our wider culture.
Find out more about FIT’s Special Collections here
And see some of Elizabeth Hawes’ designs here: