Janel Dyan

Women Crushing It Wednesday

#WCIW: Bonnie Cashin

Passion for Beauty. Enviable Career. Lasting Influence.

For anyone under 40, Bonnie Cashin’s name doesn’t exactly resonate. But her story and her influence are just as important as Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, and Giorgio Armani. In fact, there is hardly a designer working today that Bonnie Cashin hasn’t influenced. 

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Bonnie Cashin, born on September 28th, 1915 (though still in dispute) in Oakland, California, learned about garment construction and design from her mother, Eunice, who was a dressmaker. The family lived in several towns in northern California during Cashin’s early years, and in each, her mother would open a custom dress shop. In a 1973 interview, Cashin explained her interest in fashion: “My mother was a dressmaker and before I could write I could sew.”  

In 1934, she took a chance and moved to New York City, getting her first big break designing costumes for the Roxyettes at the Roxy Theatre on West 50th Street. Variety is reported to have described her as, at 19, “the youngest designer to ever hit Broadway.” Within months, Carmel Snow, Harper Bazaar’s editor, took a notice to her work and brought her into the world of fashion. Cashin’s career skyrocketed.

During the war, Cashin did her part to support the troops by designing military uniforms for the women in service. In 1943, Cashin returned to costume design and headed out west to Hollywood. Working with 20th Century Fox, she designed for over fifty films including A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Anna and the King of Siam. “It wasn’t the designing of fashion, but for characteristics, which is the way I like to design clothes for daily wear.”  

A pivotal time in her career and, what some would say, the launch of the woman designer, Bonnie Cashin was the first person to be featured in Harper’s Bazaar’s American designer report. Unable to cover Paris fashion, they shifted their focus on American designers with their feature “Introducing 7th Avenue Designers”. The war had starved the American woman for new looks as they were unable to get news from Paris, and Bonnie capitalized on this, creating new and exciting looks. 

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After the war, Cashin’s star continued to rise. From NYC’s high fashion, Paris’ iconic, and Hollywood's glamour - she was THE designer to work with. 

She designed what would become the most iconic pieces in collections for Coach, worked for Hermes, and even designed costumes for high-profile Hollywood films. She was one of the first designers to utilize the concept of “layering” and, in fact, is suspected of created the terminology, as well. She was the first designer to use grommets instead of buttons, make ponchos for women that “didn’t look like a horse should wear them”, and turtlenecks that were stretchy enough to not require a zipper.

Cashin drew inspiration from the world around her, from the turn-key clasps on her convertible, to paper shopping bags, to the stunning colors, prints, and artisanship that she saw on her many travels. Cashin lived her life on a constant quest for beauty and was determined to bring beauty to others. She was known for going on trips with one wardrobe and returning home with a completely different one - not just because she found new pieces, but because she would literally give someone the shirt off her back if they admired it.

By 1970, Cashin would be referred to as one of the top fashion icons of all time. Throughout her 30+ year career, Cashin broke the mold in women’s accessories with her shapes, textiles and bold colors. From her early days of working with New York clothing manufacturers Adler & Adler designing women’s sportswear, creating the military uniform for women during WWII to establishing modern-day’s classic styled handbags and leather goods - Cashin's legacy continues to be an in incredible force in the industry. 

“I like to design clothes for a woman who plays a particular role in life, not simply to design clothes that follow a certain trend, or that express some new silhouette.”

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For her passion in all things beautiful, her enviable career, and her lasting impact on the fashion industry, the late Bonnie Cashin is this week’s #WCIW.

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