The Strange Promise of a Genuine Squirrel Coat

By Judith Freeman / Published March 25, 2017 – Los Angeles Review of Books

I ONCE OWNED a dress I loved so much that every time I wore it, I felt like an actress in a French New Wave film. The dress was red, a perfect Titian red, with a close fitting bodice and full skirt, made of cotton so light and sensuous it seemed to become one with the air when I walked down the street.

I thought of this dress recently while reading The Artificial Silk Girl (Das kunstseidene Mädchen, 1932), a novel by the German writer Irmgard Keun, published in English in 1933 and set in Berlin. The narrator, Doris, a girl of modest means who aspires to an acting career, impulsively steals a fur coat from a cloakroom one night because she simply can’t resist it:

And there was this coat — such sweet soft fur. So fine and gray and shy. I felt like kissing it, that’s how much I loved it. It spoke comfort to me, a guardian angel, protection from heaven. It was genuine squirrel.

Doris, a free spirit with a lovely sense of humor, flees her native Cologne, Germany, and heads to Berlin to escape the police, who’ve been alerted to the theft. In Berlin, the coat becomes the equivalent of a companion or lover, and she knows she can never part with it:

And the fur coat was attached to my skin like a magnet and they loved each other, and you don’t give up what you love, once you have it. […] I look so elegant in that fur. It’s like an unusual man who makes me beautiful through his love for me. […] The coat wants me and I want it. We have each other.

In her fur coat, and a small gray felt hat and a pair of shoes with lizard toes, she strolls along the Kurfürstendamm, joining the chic urban women with their “arrogant legs.” Hungry and penniless, she nevertheless feels comforted by her coat, which she says “is with me, like a friend, shadow self, twin.”

Most of us at one time or another in our lives get caught up in what the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante has called “the intense game of clothes,” but rarely do we possess a garment that has the power to make us feel such comfort and pleasure — or as loved and beautiful — as Doris’s squirrel coat. Ferrante, who has a deep interest in women’s clothing, devotes a section to the subject in Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey, the collection of interviews and letters published for the first time in English last year. Ferrante’s mother was a dressmaker, fashioning frocks for the women in the rough Naples, Italy, neighborhood where she grew up. She loved going along with her to the fabric store: the long passage about choosing material is one of the most poetically precise in the book. But even more exciting for Ferrante was the moment when a finished dress, newly ironed, was laid out on her parent’s bed:

The oldest memory I have of a dress just finished […] is of a black dress, or maybe dark blue, spread on the red quilt of the double bed. […] We were forbidden to enter that room when there were clothes ready to be delivered [but] I must have gone in once […] I opened the door, I looked into the room. The dress was lying in the middle of the bed, the waist narrow, the sleeves spread, the skirt arranged in a trapezoid. Nothing happened except a puff of air that inflated the dress, a brief swelling as if for a breath. […] I lifted it up and looked under the dress. There was the naked body of a woman, with the legs cut off, the hands cut off, the head cut off, violet but bloodless: a body of a material without veins.

She goes on to say that she always felt that dresses weren’t really empty but rather are “human beings who at times stand empty in a corner, desolately lost.” As a child, she tried on her mother’s dresses and felt that inside them existed “beautiful women of great renown, but dead.” When she put them on, they came to life: she felt their pleasures and adventures intently and imagined those adventures were hers. She became someone with no husband but many lovers.

In both Irmgard Keun’s and Elena Ferrante’s writings, one finds the idea of women’s clothes possessing living qualities of their own. The fur coat is “shy”: it “speaks” comfort and loves and wants you. The dress is dead, yet swells with breath: a torso, decapitated and limbless yet eerily alive once inhabited. Both writers wore dresses their mothers made for them, and women’s clothing features prominently in their novels and writing.

Bonnie Cashin, the American fashion designer who, like Keun and Ferrante, was a complete original, also had a dressmaking mother, but instead of writing about women’s clothes, Cashin ended up making them. Her mother, a professional dressmaker, taught her how to sew clothing at a very young age: she learned to sew, she said, before she could write.

Cashin is the subject of a beautiful new book from Rizzoli, Bonnie Cashin: Chic Is Where You Find It, edited and with a text by Stephanie Lake and an introduction by Jonathan Adler. Lake met Cashin toward the end of her life and became a very close friend; she also took over the management of her estate after Cashin’s death in 2000 and has been the single strongest advocate for her work. The book will be a great revelation to many unfamiliar with Cashin’s designs. Others, who have long regarded her as one of the iconic queens of American fashion in the 20th century, will simply let out a sigh of relief that this brilliant woman finally has a brilliant book dedicated to her work.

Who was Bonnie Cashin? For one thing, she was a third-generation California girl who tapped her deep roots when it came to designing clothes. She has been dubbed “the mother of American sportswear.” To me, that title sounds far too drab and dowdy, sort of like saying Coco Chanel was the queen of women’s trousers. Cashin was born “around 1908” (she always fudged her age) on a farm in the San Joaquin Valley, into a peripatetic family. Her father variously ran a photo studio, a garage, and a nickelodeon picture house, but never could hold a job, and it was her mother, Eunice, who largely supported the family with her dressmaking skills as they moved from place to place along the California coast.

In the 1920s, Cashin came to Los Angeles with her mother who opened a dress shop in Beverly Hills. She enrolled in Hollywood High. By then, her unique fashion sense was already in full evidence. For years she had been her mother’s apprentice, learning every aspect of dressmaking. As Stephanie Lake notes in her text, Cashin “saw everything through clothes.”

She had a modern sensibility and her talents were recognized early on. Even before graduating from high school in 1925, she was hired to design elaborate costumes for Fanchon and Marco, a theatrical company that produced live shows that functioned as prologues in local movie theaters in the 1920s. Cashin’s “Bombay Temple Maiden” and “Chicago Bandit Girl” costumes, reproduced in the book (in both her charming drawings and pictured on showgirls of the period), are stunning examples of her early work.

In Los Angeles, she was fascinated by the mixture and proximity of Asian and South American communities, just as she had been by San Francisco’s Chinatown and Fresno’s Armenian neighborhoods when she had lived in those cities. The ideas spawned by the clothing she saw in these ethnic areas would later come into her work, prefiguring the “globalism” in fashionable dress that would become so much a part of the way women began to dress in the 20th century.

It’s hard to overstate Cashin’s influence: so much of what she introduced into women’s fashion continues to hold sway today, including the following concepts for which she has been credited: she is acknowledged for developing leather and mohair as fashion materials. She introduced “hardware” into her designs — dog leash clasps and metal closures from industrial or saddle sources. She incorporated ethnic designs and silhouettes. She was the first to feature knee-high boots with her clothes. She popularized the “seasonless” dress, and also, most importantly, the “layered” look. She loved to travel and picked up many ideas this way and fashioned a wardrobe adaptable for women who travel; her clothing designs were about freedom and movement, ingenious cuts that allowed women to feel liberated and unconstrained, in much the way Chanel’s did. She designed ponchos and Noh coats, including some with large built-in purses as design features. She was interested in freeing the hands; her gloves were made of beautiful supple leather in striking colors. She emphasized the “hooded” look; her sleek jersey “funnel neck” tops could be pulled up to form hoods: the classic Cashin look is a sleekly hooded top under a leather jerkin or wool poncho or belted swing coat, all layered and paired with knee-high boots. She is recognized for her brilliant and vivid sense of color, the way she mixed paints to create custom-color samples for the dyeing of materials: “Cashin pink” became a favorite. She also founded Coach handbags, helping transform purses into important fashion accessories.

Still, for years at the beginning of her career, during the 1930s and ’40s, she toiled behind the scenes in the fashion world, working anonymously for other design firms and living in New York City, receiving no credit for her work, until finally she returned to Los Angeles and accepted a job as a film costume designer at 20th Century Fox. Here she had a brilliant career, designing costumes for such disparate films as Laura (1944), A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), and Anna and the King of Siam (1946). Hollywood, where she could let her imagination run wild, would add yet another exotic layer to her fashion sensibility.

It wasn’t until 1949 that Cashin left Hollywood in order to create and present her first full-blown collection in New York in 1950, which was viewed as a “bombshell.” She had perfected her “layered” look, creating an original wardrobe concept. Layering, which she once described as sort of a “striptease in reverse” and claimed was a “logical” way for women to dress, was a term that did not yet exist. Each of the pieces she presented could be worn as an ensemble, alone, and in different combinations. The concept was instantly recognized as revolutionary.

In the ensuing years, Cashin’s reputation only grew: her clothes were lauded by fashion lights, including her friend Diana Vreeland (she thanks Cashin in a 1968 note for sending her a “marvelous grey cashmere dress” and “divine” little shoulder bag), worn by international fashionistas like the Duchess of Windsor, and given their own separate department at Liberty’s in London — the first American designer to receive such treatment. She always worked alone, relying on her mother, Eunice, with whom she lived throughout her life, as her sole assistant. She never had a studio but rather worked out of her apartment, refusing to “specialize” and instead insisting she wanted to design clothes for “all day long” — the kind of clothes she wanted to wear. Her mother sewed the prototypes, and Cashin wore them, becoming her own best model. Astonishingly she never had investors or sold her company to a larger corporation, instead choosing to simply head her own firm, forming alliances with many different manufacturers to realize her designs.

She presented her collections in modest but innovative surroundings — the first on the rooftop of her New York penthouse apartment, after which a reporter for The New York Times wrote of seeing “ladies from Mars — long-legged creatures wearing sleek black coats, helmets, and leather pants shaped skin tight.” Cashin always insisted on the highest quality materials for her clothes — the most beautiful mohair, buttery leathers in astonishing colors, woolens produced by the finest manufacturers, sweaters made in the Fair Isles.

She was an attractive and petite brunette, at five feet tall, who renounced marriage after one failed attempt and went on to become an independent woman and enthusiastic traveler. She and her mother were a duo to the end — Eunice, her best assistant and seamstress, first to transform her drawings into prototypes. There are wonderful photographs of her at different stages in her life — posed in her 20th Century Fox studio in 1946, wearing a gorgeous silver necklace of Mexican design, bare shouldered, her dark hair swept up à la Rita Hayworth; or at parties she threw that everyone wanted to attend. She always looked to be having fun.

Her later decades were spent in an apartment high up in the United Nations building in New York. She was by then a highly lauded and respected designer, but more recognized in the fashion industry than on the street: by that time the women who had loved her clothing had themselves all but disappeared, and when they passed on, so did their clothes.

I first became aware of Bonnie Cashin when I came across a display devoted to her work — a small exhibit of her designs, some memorabilia and fashion items, presented in the anteroom in the Special Collections department of the library at UCLA. That was in 2006. By then, Cashin was not widely known outside certain fashion circles. Her work had been consigned to fashion history, and Stephanie Lake was working with the library, beginning to organize the Cashin archive that the designer had always wanted to be housed in her native California. At the time I was there at the library to research a book on Raymond Chandler, part of whose archive is also located there. Later, I thought how perfect it was that my introduction to Cashin was due to my obsession with a mystery writer who had his own passion for women’s clothes.

Chandler was drawn to the shadowy and complex enigma of women, deeply fascinated by what they wore, and he wrote about clothes in extraordinary detail over the years, in book after book. Raymond Chandler and Bonnie Cashin had a lot in common, I realized. Both captured something essentially Californian, and they did it better than anyone else in their fields. Both were working in Hollywood at the same time during the 1940s. Both understood the powerful influence of film on the way women began to dress in the 20th century. And both loved the glamour — especially the chicness of well-dressed women.

Stephanie Lake curated that brilliant little exhibition at the UCLA library where a part of Cashin’s archive now resides, and now in Chic Is Where You Find It, she has created a brilliant book. The photographs of the clothes are so luscious and plentiful, the text so well married to the design. The essays, drawings, photographs, many snippets from the archives, all woven together. Notes Cashin wrote to herself, photographs taken over the years. Cashin could not have asked for a more loving look at her work.

For weeks I left the book open on my desk, sometimes flipping to a new page, because it gave me such pleasure to look at the pictures of such gorgeous and colorful clothes. The book is a reminder of what fashion, in the age of designers like Chanel and Cashin, was — or rather what it wasn’t. It wasn’t a celebrity rag game. It was about clothing that suited women. Freed them. Gave them pants and pearls. Comfort as well as glamour, all the feelings Doris possessed in her squirrel coat and which I felt in my red dress. Our clothes are, in a certain sense, alive, as Keun and Ferrante suggested, though most hang unworn, dangling like dead souls in our closets. I once read that American women only wear about 10 percent of the clothing they own with any regularity. What we do choose to wear tells stories about us, or as the artist Marilyn Minter suggested in a recent New York Times interview, “Fashion is one of the engines of the culture. You see who your tribe is by the way they present themselves.” Our clothes hold out a strange promise: that they can make us feel better. Their problems resemble the problems of love. We want to adore them, to feel adored when we wear them, and for that feeling to last. That is exactly what Cashin seems to have understood.

By Judith Freeman / Published March 25, 2017 – Los Angeles Review of Books

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