Inspired by mid-century modernism, designer Bonnie Cashin brought a similar sense of purpose to the fashion world.
Written by: Stephanie Lake, PhD
Artwork by: The Bonnie Cashin Archive, Lake Collection
An iconoclast who defined herself as both a modernist and an artist, Bonnie Cashin (ca. 1908-2000) became one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful American fashion designers of the twentieth century.
Today, Cashin’s influence is unavoidable. Terms and concepts such as “layering” and “hardware” have been attributed to her. Revered for her intellectual, opinionated, and independent approach to ready-to-wear, she is considered the mother of American sportswear and one of fashion’s most influential figures.
Cashin worked out of a succession of private design studios, which she referred to as “secret laboratories.” Without assistants, investors, or licensing, she designed for nearly 40 companies ranging from Hermès to American Airlines. She was handpicked for projects as diverse as advising the Indian government on export design and launching Coach as a maker of women’s accessories.
After spending the 1920s and ’30s designing dance costumes for showgirls and creating film costumes for Twentieth Century-Fox in the 1940s, Cashin burst upon the mid-century, ready-to-wear scene in New York. In a series of interviews she expounded her “dim view” of contemporary French fashion, summed up by the comment, “You can’t stuff a dress weighing twenty pounds into an overnight bag.” A consummate modernist, she loathed what she felt was distortion of the female form and lamented that there was too little attention to designing for real needs and activities. Cashin was so exasperated by the state of the fashion industry at the time that she felt determined to influence its course. To her, it was nothing less than a “critical time in designing history,” and she sent herself to the rescue.
In this quest she drew inspiration from architecture, explaining that her firm, Bonnie Cashin Designs, Inc., was set up to allow her to develop “groups of designs with an idea behind the reason for being” and to work “as an architect…blueprinting collections for various markets within the whole industry.”
In a 1951 essay distributed to the press, Cashin explained, “It pleased me to no end when, a short time ago, someone in our fashion firmament said, ‘Why, these fashions are akin to modern architecture!’ It’s practically my favorite compliment…and I’m more than grateful to men like Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier—great visionaries—who have opened new channels of creative thinking in all fields. There is an inner sympathetic relationship between architecture and fashion.”
Cashin cited Sigfried Gideon’s Space, Time, and Architecture as her bible. She referred to Ray Eames as a sister, to Buckminster Fuller as her master. Cashin’s massive library included few fashion books, but many on design theory, including titles from Henry Dreyfuss and George Nelson, the pages and bindings worn from use. She so strongly felt that her own design philosophy matched with those popularized by modernist authorities in other fields that she staged a 1958 fashion show in Herman Miller’s New York showroom. It was a rebellious decision, in stark contrast to the practice of showing fashion in hotel ballrooms lined with potted palms. To her, it was a necessary context for the debut of an at-home clothing collection. This was a neglected sector of the fashion industry that Cashin believed vital to contemporary living. For her, life at home—listening to one’s new hi-fi, or hosting an impromptu party—was part of a long list of uniquely modern situations that required equal parts relevance, delight, and ease in dress. “We are not the ‘mannered society’ we once were,” Cashin declared. “No one leans against a mantelpiece, posed.”
“I love what I do. And that element called love is the crux of life—that, and a sense of wonder so that you always want to know more. We’re here such a short period of time. ”
- Bonnie Cashin
She later commented on her work’s relevance to modern architecture, interiors, and furniture design, “I learn from observing patterns of living, what people do, even how they sit, and what their homes are like.…In visualizing a design, you must visualize the place you’ll wear it. You have to fit into your environment.…[Clothes are] part of contemporary living.” In summation, she lamented, “Lots of people don’t look like the twentieth century.”
In her mind, clothing and interior design were inextricably tied, so much so that her furniture and her ready-to-wear often shared materials. A blanket would become a skirt; a custom tweed for a handbag would become upholstery. She carefully considered the interior cut, seaming, color, and texture of every piece of outerwear that she designed so that it would look as striking thrown back on a chair as it did on a woman’s shoulders. Her designs are often mistakenly believed to be reversible.
“Clothes are our first environment,” she declared. “Our home is our second environment…and you can, of course, tell a lot about a person by his or her home.” When deciding what to wear, she suggested, “Consider yourself a character, and dress the part.”
At home, Cashin’s interior design choices, too, functioned as a form of storytelling. Her residences were as autobiographical as the fashion designs for which she would become most famous. When she returned home from travel abroad, she would cast her eyes around her apartment and think that everything had to go. She had visions of a whitewashed, uncluttered space, until she started unpacking her finds: eighteenth-century French fashion plates that lampooned courtly styles, antique leather armor from Japan, embroidered Indian slippers or Peruvian knit gloves, monumental Mexican candelabras, wooden children’s toys, Chinese lacquered chests, hats from every country visited, and rocks. She would rearrange, doing ballet steps she learned as a girl as she redecorated.
When Cashin moved from an “ancient and fashionable” Manhattan apartment to the newly-built U.N Plaza complex in 1966, she felt, “Modern architecture needs round forms. I think furniture should be sculptural, too. The ways you group things together should be sculptural.” She thought of her work in the same way, explaining, “Working with fabrics and textures in the round is a kind of sculpture. Fashion and home furnishings are all one today.”
From the Herman Miller catalog, Cashin’s furnishings would eventually include George Nelson’s Platform Bench and Marshmallow Sofa (in bright yellow), as well as his Aluminum Action Desk, Isamu Noguchi’s sculptural coffee table, Charles and Ray Eames’ rosewood and black leather “670” lounge chair and “671” ottoman, the chaise lounge they originally designed for Billy Wilder, and an orange Molded Fiberglass Shell Chair on casters, from which she worked at her desk for decades. All were set against her floor-to-ceiling wall of books or within one of her secret laboratories, with a “piece of the sky” framing each room.
“I learn from observing patterns of living; what people do, even how they sit, and what their homes are like. ”
- Bonnie Cashin
During her lifetime, Cashin was a study in contrasts: a costume designer who excelled at fantasy but focused on pared-down ready-to-wear design, a gregarious world traveler who loved to work in isolation, a serious intellect who believed in the supremacy of play, a minimalist who could not resist exuberant displays of color and texture.
In the recent resurgence of interest in Cashin’s career, she has been referred to as the most copied designer you’ve never heard of, a fashion legend, and one of the most brilliant design minds of any century. Cashin herself explained, “I love what I do. And that element called love is the crux of life—that, and a sense of wonder so that you always want to know more. We’re here such a short period of time.”
Of her legacy she wrote, “This is my century...how nice, for one voice to ignite the imagination of others.”