Bonnie Cashin was one of America’s pioneering designers, widely credited for spearheading New York’s presence in the Europe-dominated fashion industry when she burst onto the pages of Harper’s Bazaar in the 1940. Scholar Stephanie Lake, author of the new biography Bonnie Cashin, Chic Is Where You Find It (Rizzoli) and a close friend of the designer’s, remembers her indomitable spirit.
How did Bonnie get her start in the fashion world?
Before she worked in fashion, Bonnie designed costumes at the Roxy Theatre in the 1930s. It was a huge job. She would churn out thousands of costumes for the dancers, who rivaled the Rockettes, but what she really wanted was to work in fashion. So she took matters into her own hands, and created a show at the Roxy where the stage was a life-size Harper’s Bazaar spread, a magazine come to life. And all the dancers would appear to walk off the pages in clothes of her designs—real life clothes, not stage clothes. It was basically a guerrilla fashion show, in 1937. The Roxy was a high-profile theater, and there was nothing more opulent.
Carmel Snow [Bazaar‘s newly-minted editor in chief] heard about the show and came to see it, and she immediately decided that Bonnie should be a fashion designer. Bonnie had no experience or credentials, but Snow put her in contact with Louis Adler, who was a huge force in fashion and had a very prestigious dress and coat line. Snow took Cashin to his office and said, “Here’s your new designer.” She was suddenly put in charge of creating ready-to-wear, and she had absolutely no idea what she was doing. She tried to adapt things from stage to sportswear; the pattern makers thought her designs were impossible, but she had her mother by her side, who would make samples to prove that things could be done the way Bonnie wanted them.
Snow’s endorsement landed Bonnie a top job in fashion. You can scale it down to that, basically. It goes back to how important Bazaar is, and what it represents. The magazine had an appreciation for modernity and for the change that was happening across the arts in general during that time.