New York Fashion Week’s Transatlantic Heritage

From September 8 to 13, the fashion elite will descend upon Bryant Park for the latest edition of New York Fashion Week. Yet many may be surprised to learn that this event was founded in part because of World War II. Eighty years ago, finding themselves unable to make their usual trip to Paris, American designers organized their own week of shows.
American designer Clovis Ruffin presenting his ready-to-wear collection in New York, 1974. © Sal Traina/Penske Media/Getty Images

Every year during Fashion Week, as Carrie Bradshaw marvels, “the women of New York leave the past behind and look forward to the future.” The Sex and the City lead has a point; in 1943, the first edition of the renowned event was meant to break from French fashion and make way for American designers.

In the early 20th century, Paris was the epicenter of fashion. As the birthplace of haute couture and runway shows, the French capital dictated trends while the American garment industry simply reproduced them in its workshops. “We were a nation of copiers,” says Tim Gunn, fashion expert and host of the show Project Runway. But in 1940, World War II and the Third Reich’s occupation of the City of Light changed the rules of the game.

Unable to cross the Atlantic to take notes on the latest Parisian creations, American couturiers were given free rein. They didn’t need telling twice! When the war created a scarcity of materials, they simply made clothes shorter. And as women entered the workforce, they simplified their designs. Gradually, names like Claire McCardell and Hattie Carnegie replaced Chanel and Patou on department store shelves.

Next came the question of creating demand – a mission entrusted to the New York Dress Institute, founded in 1941. The stakes were high: The objective was to promote American couturiers in the press at a time when newspapers barely took notice of fashion in general, let alone domestic designers. To convince the media, which would be tasked with winning over buyers, trailblazing fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert had a brilliant idea: a centralized show reserved for fashion editors. The event was named Press Week, and was a forerunner of Fashion Week.

Publicist Eleanor Lambert, who pioneered New York Fashion Week in 1943. © Associated Press
American designer Claire McCardell in one of her creations. © Leslie Eames/Maryland Center for History and Culture
An ensemble by American designer Hattie Carnegie presented during Press Week in New York, 1943. © Bettmann/Getty Images

Eleanor Lambert, later dubbed “the godmother of fashion,” contacted every press outlet in the country and invited their journalists to New York City, on the Dress Institute’s dime. Many of these newspapers and magazines had no fashion journalists, so she convinced them to send their female writers, who were often confined to cooking and homemaking topics. New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia was delighted with the initiative, which he saw as a way to brighten up the wartime gloom: “New York seeks to keep alive the beautiful and splendid things of life.”

In early January 1943, 53 journalists from all over the U.S. stepped into the neo-Rococo ballrooms of the Plaza Hotel and the Art Deco salons of the Pierre. They were given an exclusive preview, six months before the general public, of the ingenuity of American couturiers, finally freed from Paris’s influence. The lines were modern, the styles refined, and the ready-to-wear collections proved particularly popular with their jersey jackets, jumpsuits with pockets, and wrap dresses.

The press was in raptures. American design was showcased and taken seriously at last. As a young journalist, future Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar editor Polly Mellen recalls: “It was a whole different way of dressing. Less fancy. Less uptight. Much more exciting to a young person!” She also saw it as the beginning of a new, more mutual relationship between the continents: “It started making Europe look at us, the American fashion market.” In 1973, Paris surfed on New York’s success to launch a full Fashion Week, and other major cities – including Milan, London, and of course New York – soon followed suit!

Article published in the September 2023 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.