The Unsung Women Who Dressed America: A Conversation with Fashion Scholar, Nancy Deihl

Nancy Deihl Book Cover. Two women look at model's dress

Much of what I know about fashion history, I know because of Nancy Deihl. Director of the MA program in Costume Studies at New York University, co-author (with Daniel Cole) of The History of Modern Fashion, and a scholar whose expertise reaches both back into history and forward to the future (or how fashion imagines the future, anyway), Deihl was also a thoughtful and encouraging advisor to me when I was a brand new graduate student. So, I was eager to talk to her about her new edited collection, The Hidden History of American Fashion: Rediscovering 20th-century Women Designers.

The book came together somewhat spontaneously when Deihl suggested to an editor at Bloomsbury that their fashion catalogue was great, but very British. The editor challenged her to fill the gap, and Deihl accepted. Thank goodness she did. Hidden History spotlights women who dressed America in the 20th century, but whose stories are largely forgotten, or were never told. It also gives us a glimpse into the American fashion industry as it existed in the age before fast fashion and branding took over.

Helen Bennett in a dress by Jessie Franklin Turner. Image: Vogue June 1936 – photo by Edward Steic (CC BY-NC 2.0) by myvintagevogue

Sara: Why do you think these designers are overlooked? How did they drop out of the story?

Nancy: I think a lot of the time they were really working for labels. So, the way American fashion is set up, big name designers, starting in the 30s and 40s — we know them as fashion scholars, Valentina, Norman Norell — but in a lot of cases, these people were doing work that was the backbone of the industry, but they didn’t own their own label per se. So it’s not a big mystery in a way.

Like Libby Payne…worked for all these big companies. In fact, the authors of her chapter had to provide a chart because she worked in so many different places. Or, someone like Jessie Franklin Turner — again she’s kind of known to fashion scholars — her career was really short but it represented this wonderful place in the market; this artistic dress in Greenwich Village. I mean, she was also uptown on Park Avenue, but for the downtown artistic elite, and the uptown artistic elite, it was a certain sector of the market. So it didn’t really have a lot of influence outside. These people might not have been influential but their work was influential on American fashion. I think that’s an important distinction to make.

S: Yeah, it’s a different way of thinking about the role of the designer. These days even if they’re not actually the ones doing the designing, their personality is important. It’s all about personality and brand, and being a celebrity almost, rather than the actual work of making the clothes.

N: It’s true. And one of the big differences — I try to write about this in the introduction just to set the stage for what people are going to read in the chapters — is that department stores were so important in American fashion. And a lot of these people were working in department stores.

S: That’s great!

N: Right? And so people, you know, a savvy shopper would know there were designers behind the house label at the big stores like Saks and Macy’s, but also at their local department store. Every large town had a department store, if not two or three, catering to people with different amounts of money to spend and different priorities. So this idea of the private label was so important. The way Fira Benenson worked for Bonwit Teller…We can pretty much say that the department store as having a vital role in American fashion, that era is over. Even though we still have them…But that’s where people went for their clothes. They took the advice of department store buyers and private label designers. That’s another way that these women designers are so much a part of a different system.

S: That’s really interesting. Do you know if their influence was related to a particular aesthetic or sensibility? Or were there certain expectations, like Bonwit Teller catered to this market, so their look is going to be generally within this realm. Do you know if it’s still like, “Oh that’s definitely one of hers…”?

N: Well the people who wrote the chapters have identified particular styles. Caroline Surrarrer and Catherine Leslie who wrote about [Libby Payne,] they know for a fact that she designed these particular looks. And they know how many pieces they sold and which stores carried it, because Libby Payne left an amazing archive. And for example, the person I worked on, Zelda Wynn Valdes, I’ve only been able to find one dress that she made. But there are reports all through the press, and it’s all the African American press because she was a Black designer. She only did custom work. So I know who her clients were. I know she did this one’s wedding dress and this suit for a cotillion. The only dress I’ve been able to find is a dress that she made for Ella Fitzgerald that’s in the collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Adam MacPharlain researched Catherine Scott, which was the name of a label. It wasn’t actually a woman’s name. But she had a big Chicago clientele and her clients donated a bunch of dresses and outfits from her label to the Chicago History Museum. So, that was another thing that prompted people’s research was if they had been in a museum or they were working in a museum, and there was a label in that collection that they didn’t know about. Sometimes those museum acquisition files were the start for research, just based on who the donors were and the prominence of the donors. It’s really interesting to think about how the people did their research and what prompted it.

S: What about your chapter? How did you come to find out about Zelda Valdes and get interested in her?

Actress and Singer, Joyce Bryant in a gown by Zelda Wynn Valdes (Image by Carl Van Vechten)

N: A few years ago, I don’t even know how, I was contacted by Oxford University Press. They publish the African American National Biography. ..An editor wrote me and asked if I’d like to write on Zelda Valdes, and I think it was Anne Lowe. And I said, “Well I know someone who could do a really good job on Ann Lowe,” because I had a student who was working on her for her thesis. But I said I’d be happy to do Zelda Valdes because I really didn’t know much about her. And then it just steamrolled, frankly.

S: Do you have a favorite designer, or a character that stands out the most in the book?

N: You know….[speaking personally] if I just look at the clothes I would say Catherine Scott. I would wear those clothes. But [not] in terms of the story. Each story is so different. It’s good. Because it eliminates our tendency to say, “Oh, this is what an American designer is.”

S: That’s great. Do you have a larger takeaway that you hope readers will get from the book?

N: Actually, yes. I hope it will prompt more people to research these names that they come across. To encourage people to enlarge the canon. To really look at the sources we used. Women’s Wear Daily was a source for every single author I would say. Everybody looks in Vogue. Ok, so that’s one entry point. That’s one part of the market. But to really understand the workings of fashion, you have to be looking at the trade publications. Now that it’s digitized I kind of think there’s no excuse not to delve into some of these lesser known names.

When we had our event last week…I’m just going to repeat to you what I said to the crowd. We had six speakers from the book because they all happened to be in the New York area. But I said the speakers that were there were really just a taste of the book. The book in turn is just a taste of American fashion. So I really hope that people will be emboldened. Just because they don’t know a designer they shouldn’t think this person has no importance. It should be the other way around. We should be looking for people that we can re-establish the importance of.

S: Before I even went to NYU, I was just volunteering in a costume collection in Minneapolis, I remember seeing all of those local labels. I didn’t even think about digging into where they came from and who was behind them. I wish I could go back now and find them.

N: I think it’s possible. And you’re talking about Minneapolis…one thing that’s also been negated over the years is the fact that American fashion had all these regional centers. Like the St. Louis market was really important for juniors. I don’t know why. And of course, California was more than just sportswear, as the Lilli Ann chapter shows — and Viola Dimmitt too…You know [every region had] their own fashion press and their own regional buying offices. Texas was, of course, a fashion center. It’s just so interesting because I feel like now our fashion world is so homogenous. You know, like physically, there’s so many clothes objects out there, but there’s so much less choice. I wish it weren’t so, but that’s the reality.

S: I totally agree. Do you have any advice for budding fashion historians?

N: Yeah! Let’s try to make sure everything we do is really rigorous. And I always advocate busting fashion myths whenever possible. Because I feel that our field has been undervalued in a certain way because of emotional connotations, and criticized for too much subjectivity. And I think the only we can combat that is through really informed research.

S: How do you see the future of fashion history developing?

N: I think it’s important to open it up. Establish more people. I don’t think that any author in this collection would claim that their designer had the influence of, for example, Calvin Klein, but these are still stories that need to be told. Because just think about those museum collections. The top designer stuff is a small percentage of it. It’s really…these are the designers that clothed the country. So that’s a really important part of the story.

Help us make more work like this by heading to our Support Us page! Then follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram

Sara Tatyana Bernstein
Sara is the co-founder of Dismantle Magazine. You can also find her writing on Longreads, LitHub, Hippocampus, Catapult, The Outline, Racked, BuzzFeed Reader, and more.