A bestselling writer, labor organizer and WWII-era factory worker, the Ridgewood native designed transcendent apparel that was preserved by the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection, now part of the Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
She was a maverick in the fashion world, says Bettina Berch, who wrote the 1988 Hawes biography Radical by Design.
Still, Hawes’ work was foundational. She never became mainstream. “It was tragic that she never really quite got the satisfaction in her own life and the credit from the rest of the world that she’s due,” Berch said.
Born in 1903, Hawes grew up as a big fish in a small pond, Berch says. Her family was decidedly upper-middle class. Her mother, Henrietta Hawes, shaped Ridgewood through an outsized social influence. When Hawes attended Ridgewood High School, her mother became the first woman elected to the town’s school board. The board later named a south Ridgewood elementary school in her honor.
“Her mother was a hard act to follow,” Berch said. “She was both well-educated and progressive.”
The younger Hawes nonetheless took things a few steps further with progressive beliefs that were beyond the constructs of her Depression-era society. A proponent of sexual fluidity, “she was as into men’s liberation as women’s,” Berch said.
Uncommon for the time, she emphasized comfort and utility in dress, even if that meant nudity or cross-dressing. Fashion should be unrestricted on multiple levels, Hawes wrote. Practically, Hawes advised never buying a garment without “going through all the motions in it that you’ll be using when you really wear it.”
“Things we accept today as OK were difficult for people in her time to take seriously,” said Berch. “She never cared much about approval. Instead, she lived by an internal compass.”
From an early age, Hawes took exception to fashion and gender norms. She placed more value on style and self-expression. In her most famous book, 1938’s Fashion is Spinach, Hawes wrote that she was “greatly disgusted by being made to wear long-legged underwear to dancing school.” Even as a child, woolen leggings “deeply offended [her] sense of chic.”
Later, Hawes’ sensibilities heightened. The mere sight of an ugly dress solicited a visceral response. “My spine tightens, and I vomit mentally,” she wrote.
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After high school, Hawes followed her mother’s footsteps and attended Vassar College in New York. She majored in economics, designed costumes for school plays and apprenticed in New York City at Bergdorf Goodman. After her graduation in 1925, she moved to Paris. There, in a clandestine dressmaker’s shop, Hawes crafted Chanel knockoffs as a copy stylist by carefully duplicating originals.
She also showed her trademark versatility. She sketched originals, used her Parisian insight to pen cables for The New Yorker as a mysterious reporter dubbed the “Parisite,” worked as a buyer for an American department store and served as the United States Trade Commissioner to Rome.
Following her first foray into Europe, Hawes returned to New York City in 1928 to launch fashion house Hawes-Harden. The label produced dresses and decorative pieces with famous collaborators such as Alexander Calder and Isamu Noguchi.
Ill-timed, the couture shop could not withstand the Depression. Hawes took her dresses to Paris and then to Russia in 1935 with filmmaker Joseph Losey. Hawes and Losey married in 1937 and had a son, Gavrik Losey, the following year, when Fashion is Spinach was published.
The insider take on fashion was her most famous work, but Hawes wrote several more books about social norms: Men Can Take It, Anything But Love; A Complete Digest of the Rules for Feminine Behavior From Birth to Death and Why Women Cry/Wenches With Wrenches, among others. She published nine books in total and penned dozens of columns for the afternoon New York City newspaper PM.
Berch first learned about Hawes while teaching economics at Barnard College in Manhattan. Attempting to gain further insight into women in the workplace, Berch found Hawes’ book Wenches with Wrenches in a used bookstore. The book details Hawes’ experience working at Wright Aeronautical Corp.’s Plant 7 in Wood-Ridge, and the casual sexism that women were expected to endure.
Hawes took the gig at the massive airplane factory in Wood-Ridge to learn the plight of female workers firsthand. Unlike other work diaries from the World War II era, Hawes’ sounded genuine, Berch says. It was refreshingly different.
“She talked about real things that were going on, like race riots on the bus going to work and what to do about childcare,” Berch says. “These weren’t things written by the Office of War Information.”
When the war ended, Hawes became a union organizer for United Auto Workers. She thought of herself as a feminist and a socialist. She was nonetheless accused of being a Communist and a rabble-rouser.
Hawes’ FBI file identified her as both a Fifth Avenue socialite and a high-ranking radical connected to a communist cell in Tennessee, Berch says. She was only the former. There was another Elizabeth Hawes. For a time, the two shared a name and an FBI file, Berch says.
Hawes and Losey divorced in November 1944. She spent time in the Caribbean before returning to New York to open a new dress shop in 1948. The Madison Avenue boutique rereleased designs she recreated in-house after pulling the originals from her collection at the Brooklyn Museum.
Hawes took fashion — and its culture, ethics and economics — seriously. She believed being perfectly dressed “contributes directly to that personal peace which religion is ultimately supposed to bestow” and that the runway collusion that determined what was produced, when and for whom led to ghastly trends.
While style can be timeless, fashion is rooted in its profit-churning seasons. Fashion, as Hawes wrote, is “that horrid little man with an evil eye who tells you that your last winter’s coat may be in perfect physical condition, but you can’t wear it.”
After leaving New York City, Hawes moved to St. Croix and then California. She returned to Manhattan, where in 1967, The Fashion Institute of Technology staged a retrospective displaying her work. Even then, the plaudits were fleeting. She died four years later of liver cirrhosis in the city’s Chelsea Hotel. She was 67.
David Zimmer is a local reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.