Hattie Carnegie (1889-1956) was a prominent fashion dress designer in the United States during the 1930s.
Hattie Carnegie, born Henrietta Kanengeiser in Vienna in 1889, was one of the premier dress designers of the 1930s. Not only did she make her mark through her elegant designs, she also trained a generation of fashion designers that shaped American style for decades. Carnegie started her career as a milliner. Her father, an artist and designer, introduced her to the world of fashion and design, and by age fifteen she had found work trimming hats. Five years later she opened a shop on East Tenth Street in New York called Carnegie—Ladies Hatter. The shop was successful, and within a few years she moved to the tony Upper West Side, where she took up dress design. However, she never learned to sew. A friend explained that "Hattie couldn't sew a fine seam, but she had a feeling about clothes and a personality to convey her ideas to the people who were to work them out." She changed the name of her business in 1914 to Hattie Carnegie, Inc., and by the 1920s was the toast of the fashion world from her new location in the Upper East Side.
"Simple, Beautiful Clothes"
Carnegie's belief in simplicity fit perfectly with the streamlining of 1930s design. She believed that "simple, beautiful clothes … enhance the charm of the woman who wears them. If you have a dress that is too often admired, be suspicious of it." The dress, she insisted, must fit and not overpower the woman who wears it. She was unabashedly devoted to Paris fashion and made regular buying trips throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Yet while she was a self-declared Francophile, she adapted French style to American tastes by offering a blend of style and comfort that suited many fashion-conscious Americans who still wanted their clothes to have a French flair.
Designing for the Middle Class
Carnegie's expensive original designer clothes were out of reach for many Americans, but this did not limit her influence on American design. Hers were among some of the most widely copied designs by popularly priced designers. As the decade wore on, Carnegie added a modestly priced, ready-to-wear line of clothing that proved to be the most lucrative of her enterprises. She made her modestly priced clothes more available to the average consumer by permitting some department stores to carry the new line, breaking from her usual practice of selling her clothes at her own shop. This practice secured her influence over both haute couture and popular wear.
Training a New Generation
Throughout the 1930s Carnegie's booming business attracted several young designers who trained under her. Norman Norell, Claire McCardell, Paula Trigére, Pauline De Rothschild, and Jean Louis, among others, spent years working under her tutelage. As her business grew, so did her interests. She added accessories, perfumes, chiffon handkerchiefs, silk hose, and cosmetics. By the 1940s Carnegie was well established as one of America's top designers.
Further Reading on Hattie Carnegie
L. H., "Profiles: Luxury, Inc.," New Yorker, 10 (31 March 1934): 23-27.
Caroline Rennolds Milbank, New York Fashion: The Evolution of American Style (New York: Abrams, 1989).