Fashion maverick Elizabeth Hawes was not a conformist

Mark A. Carlson

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.

Publicity handout photo of dress designer Elizabeth Hawes, circa 1946. Hawes was also a newspaper columnist, author, union organizer and women's liberationist.

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.”

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