What does “Fashion Is Spinach” mean? For Elizabeth Hawes, the American fashion designer, celebrated author, activist, and social critic, it meant the fashion industry is as nonsensical as the statement.
The most famous of Hawes’ books (she published nine), Fashion Is Spinach was called an incendiary critique of the fashion industry when first published in 1940. In recent years, Hawes (1903–1971) has come to seem increasingly relevant for her progressive stance on class, gender, and environmentalism in fashion.
On March 7, fashion historians and professors Lourdes Font (FIT) and Francesca Granata (The New School) spoke in conversation about Hawes’ life and legacy. April Calahan, author, podcaster, and FIT Special Collections Associate, moderated the event, which complements the exhibition about the designer currently on view at The Museum at FIT, Elizabeth Hawes: Along Her Own Lines.
“When I assign her work to students, they can’t believe it was written in the 1930s,” Granata says. “She’s advocating for what we now call ‘slow fashion’ as early as the ’30s and ’40s.”
Hawes’ fashion career began early in Paris “copy houses,” where she visited real couture houses and made imitation patterns from memory.
“Within a few years, she began to see the rot behind the glamorous silken curtains,” Font said.
Hawes left Paris, returning to New York to open her custom dress shop on West 56th Street, Hawes & Harden, with a former classmate. She then went on to report for The New Yorker under the nom-de-plume “Parisite,” along with several newspapers, frequently criticizing wage inequality in the fashion industry and the classism of couture.
Hawes’ design career gained traction following a “press stunt” fashion show she staged in Paris. At the time, it was still unheard of for American designers to show overseas, but from there, Hawes would earn a ready-to-wear deal, be promoted by Lord & Taylor, and design a gown for Katharine Hepburn. She would go on to have several clothing design businesses in Manhattan.
Decades ahead of her time, Hawes questioned clothing’s gender binary with designs like her iconic hand-knit man’s jockey shorts (pictured). “She was not afraid to go up against these longstanding convictions about what men and women could wear,” Font said.
After retiring from fashion, Hawes focused on labor unionization and anti-sexual exploitation with the United Auto Workers (UAW). She was even deemed “radical” and investigated by the FBI.
In the end, Hawes flew mainly under the industry’s radar. Granata says, “She was such a central part of American fashion, yet I don’t think she’s gotten her due.”
Elizabeth Hawes: Along Her Own Lines , which is on view in the museum’s Gallery FIT though March 26, is the first contemporary exhibition dedicated to Hawes since her retrospective at at the college in 1967. Organized by students in the Fashion and Textile Studies graduate program, it features garments unseen since then—plus a rare collection of Hawes’ books and unpublished manuscripts.
Hawes’ son, Gavrik Losey (featured here in an oral history interview about his mother), wrote to Calahan and the students behind the exhibition, “You are to be congratulated for the rebirth of Hawes.”
—Sydney Bigelow, International Trade and Marketing ’22
This event was part of the Fashion Culture public programs of spring 2023 with the support of the Couture Council of The Museum at FIT. The museum’s programs are made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature.