When Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, or Jackie Kennedy entered a room wearing a daytime or evening ensemble by Norman Norell, you noticed them and not the clothes. Wearing Norell, you could always be assured you looked like perfection personified.
Considered to be the “American Balenciaga,” the Museum at FIT pays tribute to this master in its retrospective exhibition, Norell: Dean of American Fashion, on view through April 14.
The show emphasizes his signature elements – for example, dramatic capelets on everything from evening wear to outerwear, self-belted coats with closings inspired by kimono fastenings, sailor-suit bows, and sequined mermaid dresses where each tiny disc was applied by hand to the liquid silk jersey.
Norell’s key to success was that he injected couture details into what ladies could purchase off the rack at Bergdorf’s – silk interlining, bound buttonholes, bias-cut buckram interfacing inside hems.
Although he started designing costumes for Broadway shows and for Paramount at their Astoria silent-movie studios back in the 1920s, Norell’s design education really went into high gear in the 1930s working Hattie Carnegie.
When she brought back couture from the Paris shows, Norell pulled apart each dress, lining, and gown as if he were tapping into King Tut’s tomb, breaking down each outer layer until he understood what was inside.
Norell was inspired by the exacting techniques of the master couturiers – refining, adjusting, and experimenting how to build interior structures that appeared deceptively simple but remained rock-solid when a powerful, beautiful woman entered a room.
To see Norell’s colorful clothes in action, watch this fashion-show sequence from That Touch of Mink, a 1962 movie starring Doris Day.
Norell hit his stride in the Sixties as slimming styles, trapeze coats, clean lines, and understated classy details set the tone for elegance, ease, and active, modern women. A-list celebrities and stars snapped up his Seventh Avenue ready-to-wear at a time when the only other option for this kind of elegance was couture.
He even invented culottes so that women would look good getting in and out of cars, whether they were on the go around town or exiting limos on the red carpet.
Since Norell’s name isn’t that well known today, Jeffrey Banks, co-curator of the exhibition, wanted to set the record straight. Norell was ahead of his time with color blocking and mixing sequins subtly with non-glam fabrics like wool jersey. And he was the first designer in America to have his own fragrance.
Listen as Jeffrey, Stan Herman, and Ralph Rucci testify to the pretty-much-perfect vision that Norell brought to American fashion.
If you can’t get to the show before it closes, see it here in FIT’s online exhibition. Take a look at the beautiful clothes in photos by FIT and our Flickr photo album.
And here’s a look back to our post on FIT’s past tribute to the style of Lauren Bacall, who donated her entire wardrobe, including her Norell pieces, to the Museum at FIT.