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The Timeless Appeal of Norman Norell

Written by bethdincuff | Dec 20, 2010.

Norman Norell adjusting a design in front of a Parsons fashion design class.

That buttonhole. The hand sewn buttonhole; the mark of an exquisitely made garment. “No one does this kind of work anymore” my Mother pointed out to me when we went shopping for her clothes. “Norell, Norman Norell, made the most beautiful buttonholes. . . Not like this.”

Norell buttonhole

A close up image of a hand sewn button hole on a Norman Norell dress from the mid 1960's

She would say as she held up an unfortunate wool coat with lackadaisical machine made finishing. “These buttons are not even anchored correctly”.  And so it was that evening in Bambergers during a lesson in consumer science (i.e. shopping) that I first heard of the master of the hand sewn buttonhole, and by extension, the master of American Fashion:  Norman Norell.

Norell’s name has been on people’s lips since First Lady Michelle Obama wore a vintage 1950s black lace Norell dress  for the television special Christmas in Washington last week. Media outlets picked up on the story noting that a First Lady wearing vintage clothing was a very rare, and perhaps, “historic” sartorial event.  Through her intelligent wardrobe choices, Mrs. Obama has shown tremendous support for emerging and independent American designers like Isabel Toledo and Jason Woo. It is a testament to both her sense of style, and her respect for the heritage and beauty of American fashion that she chose to wear a Norman Norell design. Not to be overlooked is that the First Lady and the dress both looked fantastic, proving that great American style is timeless.

Norman Norell  coat from Fall 1966

Original sketch of a Norman Norell coat from Fall 1966 from The Kellen Archives.

Norell had become somewhat forgotten in the years following his death in 1972, which in itself is telling as this negligence coincides with the general decline of the fashion industry in the United States. Through her intelligent wardrobe choices, Mrs. Obama has shown tremendous support for emerging American designers. It is a testament to both her sense of style, and her respect for the heritage and beauty of American fashion that she chose to wear a Norman Norell design. Not to be overlooked is that the First Lady and the dress both looked fantastic, proving that great American style is timeless

Norman Norell is known for designing American ready to wear garments that rivaled in quality, taste and sophistication couture garments made in Paris. Innovative techniques and designs associated with him include the “Mermaid Dress”, a formfitting, but classy sequined evening sheath; evening and feminine variations on the pea coat -think bright pink satin; blouses and dresses with floppy bows tied under the chin, jeweled or contrasting buttons that added punch to an otherwise impeccably restrained ensemble; warm and rich looking fur and coat weight wool pants. His “Subway Coat” which from the outside looked like a well cut conservative wool overcoat but when opened revealed a glorious sequined lining, perfect for appearing nonchalant on the subway en-route to a cocktail party or nightclub; a very Democratic idea indeed.

Norman Norell adjusting a student's design, 1957. Courtesy of the Kellen Archives

Norell received his training at Parsons, graduating in 1921. He found success as a costume designer for film and the theater and worked for various New York fashion houses including Hattie Carnegie. In 1941 he partnered with Anthony Traina to form Traina-Norell.  When Traina retired in 1960 Norell began designing under his own name. Norell upheld a strong relationship with Parsons serving as a lecturer and a critic for the Fashion Design program. He also served on the school’s advisory board and the Board ofTtrustees. He was given the Parsons Medal for Distinguished Achievement in 1956.

The Parsons Fashion Collection contains numerous Norell designs, donated by the designer, including a trove of little black dresses from the 1950s and 1960s.

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