A New Exhibition Puts Norman Norell in the Fashion Pantheon
The Museum at FIT celebrates the forgotten mid-century American designer who dressed Marilyn Monroe and Lauren Bacall.
Installation view of Norell: Dean of American Fashion. Norman Norell, collection of The Museum at FIT and the collection of Kenneth Pool. Photograph © The Museum at FIT.
Marilyn Monroe wore his dress to accept a Golden Globe. He was adored by Lauren Bacall, who wore his clothes almost exclusively, both on- and offscreen. First Ladies Jackie O and Michelle Obama each donned his designs (Jackie, contemporaneously; Michelle, in a vintage gown). So why is it that no one apart from the fashion literati seems to know the name Norman Norell?
A legacy reduced to footnotes didn’t sit well with writer and designer Jeffrey Banks, who curated the just-opened show Norell: Dean of American Fashion at the Museum at FIT. A longtime fan of Norell’s work, Banks set out to write a book on the designer, and was invited by directors Valerie Steele and Patricia Mears to curate a show dedicated to Norell in tandem with the launch of the book, Norell: Master of American Fashion.
Walking through the exhibit day before its launch, filled with silks, sequins, and chiffon on mannequins poised under a chandelier and accompanied by a soundtrack of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” Banks tells me he felt a sense of duty to write the monograph. “I felt if I don’t do it, no one will,” he said. “We’re going through a period in fashion which, quite frankly, I hate. I think there’s a lot of ugly clothes out there, and they’re not cheap. It’s such an interesting time to show beautiful clothes that are classic and can be worn forever and ever. Hopefully this will reverberate, and designers will start doing more wearable clothes.”
Though his clothes exuded New York City glamour, Norell's own origins were humble. Born in 1900 in Noblesville, Indiana, he always had a knack for design. Banks recalls a story from Norell’s teenage years, when he went to visit relatives in California. “He took a trip with his mother [and] designed her outfit: a floor length red dress with a big hat that had ostrich plumes and ribbons down the back. And he said that on the train, no one would talk to either of them. [People] thought they were Bessarabian gypsies, because the look was so exotic! But his mother wore it proudly.” Emboldened by his mother’s confidence, Norell made his way to New York City at age 19 on the cusp of the Roaring Twenties, right as a revolution in fashion was underway. Skirts became shorter and corsets fell away as the liberated woman—the flapper—rose to prominence, imprinting on Norell’s design DNA. This, Banks says, was his favorite period in fashion, one Norell would continually reference throughout his career.
After studying at Pratt and Parsons, Norell made his way to the world of theater and cinema. “By the time he was 21, he designed the costumes for Rudolph Valentino in a movie called The Sainted Devil, and then he designed for Gloria Swanson in a movie called Zaza. He knew what he wanted. He was very driven,” said Banks. Norell landed a job working for designer Hattie Carnegie, before ultimately establishing his own house in the 1960s, setting up shop on 7th Avenue, where he would host black-tie openings to showcase each collection. “Imagine being in dirty, smelly New York in the 1960s, and having limousines pull up at 9 o’clock at night on 7th Avenue, where you might get killed,” said Banks. “But they all lined up! Photographers, press, and buyers all had to wear black tie and evening dress. [Norell] had an all-white showroom with white carpeting, no runway, with white lilies in huge vases. The models just walked between the customers on the white carpet. No music, just numbers called out.”
“They showed daytime clothes, then there was a brief 15-minute intermission while the models changed into evening makeup, and then the second half of the show was all evening clothes,” continued Banks. “And during that intermission, guests were served strawberries and champagne. It’s a different world.”
“I think there’s a lot of ugly clothes out there, and they’re not cheap. It’s such an interesting time to show beautiful clothes that are classic and can be worn forever and ever.”
Norell was a meticulous dressmaker; an inverted dress in a glass case shows the delicate craftsmanship on the interiors of each dress. Silk-lined, they had 6-12 inch hems, so that the buyer could alter at will. “His clothes were made like art,” said Banks. “If you were going to spend that kind of money on a dress, you should be able to wear it forever. There’s been no real restoration done to any of these clothes; they’ve lasted the test of time, which is why women fell in love with their Norell’s and cherished them.”
The exhibition is organized on a timeline, showing how Norell’s designs (from the '20s to the '70s) evolved and transformed through the decades. But aside from the chandelier, the show isn’t overly dressed-up. “I really wanted you to see the various codes that he did, whether it was jersey dresses, or sequins, or fabulous coats, and fabulous suits; I wanted to separate it, and I didn’t want a lot of jazz,” said Banks. “I wanted you really to be able to focus and look at the clothes. That’s what his shows were like. It wasn’t about the models, it wasn’t about the front row, it was about the clothes.”
So why did a designer with so many accolades and such widespread attention fade away? After his death in 1972, the line was briefly taken over by Gustave Tassell, before it shuttered a few years later. Most of Norell’s workers went, fittingly, to Halston, who was greatly influenced by Norell’s sleek jersey dresses. “Because of the change in fashion, because of the rise of sportswear, they just couldn’t continue [Norell’s] business at the level of quality and cost,” said Banks. “All of a sudden, women were wearing turtlenecks to lunch and not beautiful suits. Blue jeans and maybe a Chanel jacket over it.”
“He just faded away,” Banks said. “And that’s why I did this. I don’t want him to fade away. I want people to remember how great a designer he was—and is.”
Norell: Dean of American Fashion is on view at the Museum at FIT through April 14.