A Bonnie Wee Peep into the World of Ms. Cashin

At the end of February, Documenting Fashion’s MA class took a study trip to New York. Homecoming for some and the first time in America for others, these few days were outstanding, and we are excited to share our highlights with you.

Bonnie Cashin wearing a traditional Korean gat that she purchased during her travels for the Ford Foundation in East Asia during the 1950s. Additions to image made by the author.

Before this trip to New York, I had never seen any of Bonnie Cashin’s Coach-era sketches. Cashin designed for the luxury accessories brand for a little over a decade whilst maintaining her own sportswear company (1952-1985). She was hired by Coach’s wife & husband duo Miles and Lillian Cahn in 1962 to work collaboratively on the brand’s range of leatherwear accessories. From bucket-scooped ‘carriables’ to practical leather-trimmed ponchos, Cashin became well-known for her unusual combinations of texturally diverse fabrics. Cashin was Coach’s first designer, and I believe her veracious, playful nature as a creative can be most resolutely understood through her quirky sketches. 

As previously mentioned, I had never seen Cashin’s sketches before, and yet during this four-day study trip, I was able to closely examine two collections of her work, from different archives: the Special Collections & College Archives at the Fashion Institute of Technology and at the Brooklyn Museum Fashion and Costume Archive. It was not singularly the drawings that provided me with such entertainment—though bold and thoroughly fun—but also the captions Cashin had devised to sit alongside them. Her words inject the drawings with a splash of campy humour.

Sketch by Bonnie Cashin for Coach, Special Collections & College Archives collection at Fashion Institute of Technology, New York. Photo by author.

Take, for example, this waifish figure laden with piles of precariously stacked Cashin-Coach handbags, which are seemingly ready to topple from her outstretched arms. In the right top-hand corner of this sketch is the accompanying caption: ‘I just want to steal every Cashin-carry I can put my hands on’.

‘I’d rather wear body bags than body stockings’, sketch by Bonnie Cashin for Coach, Special Collections & College Archives collection at Fashion Institute of Technology, New York. Photo by author.

In this sketch, like the others I studied, Cashin employs a provocative statement and counterbalances its weight with her own special brand of humour. The term ‘body bag’ holds two meanings—at least to me (!): a bag in which you place a cadaver… or a cross-body bag in which you hold your phone, keys, lip-salve, whatever. The drawing of an in-motion model paired with a quirky caption makes Cashin’s work that much more unique. She has also incorporated her own surname to further instate the mark of her hand within the image. 

I am reminded of the wit that contemporary illustrators, such as Julie Hout, use to poke fun at the commercial fashion industry’s superficial nature. Even though the girls that decorate Hout’s Instagram feed are clumsy, brash and all together horribly scatty, I want to be them, and their parodied inadequacies make them all the more relatable. 

Julie Hout vs. Bonnie Cashin – additions to image made by the author.

This is also true of Cashin’s cluttered mannequin, weighed down by her bags, her indecision and her shopaholic tendencies. I like to think of her illustrative style as a precursor to the current trend of satirical fashion illustrations swarming our Instagram feeds. 

Once again, we defer to you, Bonnie!  

Find amazing images of Cashin’s sketches on FIT’s digital image library: fitdil.fitnyc.edu 

OR through the Brooklyn Museum’s Costume and Textiles Archive Collection:  www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/archives 

An ode to the talents of Julie Hout (@jooleeloren), seriously, follow her! – additions to image made by the author

Three Coats in Museum Exhibitions

Clothes provide a protective layer between the body and the outside conditions. The following coats were seen recently in exhibitions in New York and respond to the notion of coats as a protective membrane between the human body and the outside weather conditions, as well as something the body lives in. The following ‘Sleeping Bag Coat’ (Norma Kamali, 1973/2017), ‘Self-Contained Housing’ (Daniel Durning, c.1982) and the ‘Security Blanket Coat’ (Bonnie Cashin, 1972) also comment on issues of housing and lifestyle through their self-conscious titles and the materials in which they are made from and the exhibitions they are shown in.

Photograph of ‘Self-Contained Housing’ Daniel Durning, designed c.1982

Daniel Durning’s ‘Self-Contained Housing’, a coat, hat and slippers ensemble, was exhibited at The Museum of Modern Art as part of their Club 57: Film, Performance, and
Art in the East Village, 1978–1983
exhibition (October 2017 – April 2018). By recycling found fiberglass insulation and plastic sheeting for this piece and titling it ‘self-contained housing’ Durning amusingly aligns the body with the home, and was made in 1982 to respond to the way artists were living in unheated loft spaces in New York in the eighties in scenes like ‘Club 57’. This piece reminded me of Final Home’s 1994 coat that was designed by Kosuke Tsumara after spending several nights sleeping rough in New York City which features up to 40 pockets that can be stuffed with material to insulate the wearer in the face of a natural or man-made disaster.

Photograph of ‘Security Blanket Coat’, Bonnie Cashin, designed 1972.

Photograph of newspaper clipping from WWD May 1972.

Going uptown and back in time, Bonnie Cashin’s ‘security blanket’ coat from 1972 was exhibited at Mod New York (November 2017 – April 2018) at the Museum of the City of New York. The mohair coat features a check plaid pattern that resembles the traditional material of a blanket, and the loose draping of the body, deep armholes and the fact it covers the whole body even further align it with the kind of warmth and protection one may use a blanket for when indoors keeping warm. This coat by Cashin, who was the first hired designer for Coach, takes an idea of comfort indoors to outside and onto the streets as outerwear. This design then follows the preoccupation with comfort and simplicity of design in American Sportswear that Cashin was known for and which is intrinsically linked with the post-war fashion design in New York in the 40s and 50s that challenged traditional design much like imaginative and diverse designs of the ‘Mod’ 1960s.

Photograph of ‘Sleeping Bag Coat’, Norma Kamali, designed 1973, manufactured 2017.

Norma Kamali’s ‘Sleeping Bag Coat’ (1973) was featured in The Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition Items: Is Fashion Modern?  (October 2017-Janurary 2018) and like Cashin’s ‘Security Blanket’ it features a wrap-around design and a material reference to comfort and sleep, as opposed to Durning’s ‘Self Contained Housing’ that uses the actual infrastructure of the home for a garment. The idea of the coat came to Kamali during a camping trip when she wrapped her sleeping bag around her body to run to the bathroom. This backstory contextualises the coat with the camping holiday trend of the 70s that continues today and considers how clothing can be transitory and practical like a sleeping bag. This interplay between fashion and the functional object – here, the sleeping bag, but also wall insulation in Durning’s case or a traditional mohair blanket in Cashin’s – shows how designers were taking inspiration from a concern with survival, protection, sleep and innovation of materials not necessarily associated with fashion design, and creating space for innovative runway designs like Maison Martin Margiela’s duvet coat in 1999 or Viktor and Rolf’s fantastical bed dress in 2005.

By Evie Ward