In the span of 40 years (from the early 1930s to ’70s), Norman Norell helped reshape American fashion, creating pieces that were both beautiful and comfortable—a duality that was largely unavailable to women of that era. Now, nearly 50 years after his death, Norell is having a moment. In tandem with the release of Norell: Master of American Fashion (Rizzoli), a coffee-table book written by Jeffrey Banks and Doria de la Chapelle detailing the designer’s esteemed career and creations, the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (MFIT) is displaying “Norell: Dean of American Fashion.” The exhibit, on view now through April 14, contains approximately 100 ensembles and accessories from the stellar private collection of Kenneth Pool.
Daywear—including clean-lined suits, jersey shirtwaist dresses, and his signature sailor dress—are shown along with Norell’s famed evening wear. The juxtaposition is in line with the designer’s stance that “women can never be too simple during the day nor too elaborate at night.” Still, even Norell’s evening gowns were noted for their clean lines and comfort. His glittering mermaid gowns, adorned with thousands of hand-sewn sequins, were crafted from knitted jersey cut with rounded necks and a variety of sleeves. Norell hoped that his necklines “helped women dress more simply.”Wool jersey was the base of many of the designer’s creations, like his signature color-blocked shirtwaist dresses, a stark contrast to the splashy day dresses of the period. In the early ’40s, World War II fabric restrictions forced him to be thrifty with yardage. Emulating his favorite period, the 1920s, Norell created lean, narrow silhouettes inspired by the Jazz Age (decades before his Parisian couture counterparts popularized the chemise). Luckily, sequins were not made of metal and therefore not subject to restrictions.Function was a benchmark for all of Norell’s designs. In Norell: Master of American Fashion, he is quoted saying, “When I design, I never start with the neck and finish with the hem; I design from the head to the sole.” Just as in men’s clothing, pockets and buttons were always functional, but, of course, beautifully finished. Norell’s work became synonymous with American glamour, employing sleek and sophisticated silhouettes in exceptionally detailed construction that rivaled European couture houses. Though he would deny the comparison, Norell was called “America’s Balenciaga” for his ability to tailor couture practices to American tastes. In his heyday, Norell’s designs were adored by an A-list clientele that included Babe Paley, Jacqueline Kennedy, Lena Horne, and Marilyn Monroe, and his designs made appearances in films like A Sainted Devil, That Touch of Mink, and The Wheeler Dealers. His legacy lives on today in vintage designs that are loved by movie stars and the likes of former first lady Michelle Obama. Thanks to Rizzoli, it also lives in the form of a beautiful book, in which Ralph Rucci writes, “And, this is what we have: a tradition of excellence, a legacy with no conclusion in sight, just the perfection known as Norell.” u