The 1930s designer Adrian was born to immigrants in Connecticut. Although Adrian Adolph Greenberg knew no one in the garment business, he was armed with talent: While studying in Paris, his designs caught the eye of Rudolph Valentino’s wife, and he began designing for the actor. It was only a matter of time before he left for Hollywood, becoming its first major costume designer and helping Hollywood moguls, many of them Jewish, define glamour. As chief designer at MGM, Adrian set new standards in movie creativity by dressing the characters in the 1939 The Wizard of Oz. (We have him to thank for film’s signature red-sequined ruby slippers.) Macy’s copied one of Adrian’s designs for Joan Crawford—worn in a 1932 movie called Letty Lynton—and sold a half million dresses. His designs in the 1939 film The Women were so breathtaking that while the movie was shot in black and white, the studio used Technicolor for a 10-minute fashion parade featuring his work.
While Adrian was designing for Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer, a few Jewish designers in New York were gaining national attention. Austrian Henrietta Kanangeiser renamed herself Hattie Carnegie (after the nation’s most famous industrialist, Andrew Carnegie), and designed colorful dresses and artful jewelry for Crawford and Tallulah Bankhead and public figures like Clare Boothe Luce and the Duchess of Windsor.
Sally Milgrim designed the light blue gown that Eleanor Roosevelt wore to her husband’s first inaugural ball in 1933. Known for the quality of her clothes and accessories at a time when most ready-to-wear items were anything but, she won contracts from actresses Ethel Merman and Mary Pickford. Another early star was Mollie Parnis, who with her husband Leon Livingston (née Levinson) opened a business at the height of the Depression. Though she couldn’t cut, sew or draw, Mollie Parnis Livingston had what one observer called “an architect’s eye for proportion,” producing designs geared to flatter women over 30.
Austrian-born Nettie Rosenstein, dubbed by Life as “among the handful of American dress designers who compete successfully with Paris,” was responsible for both of Mamie Eisenhower’s inaugural gowns. In an era when department stores insisted on putting their labels on clothes, Rosenstein convinced Bergdorf Goodman and I. Magnin to carry her line under her own name. “Certainly until 1930 you didn’t hear the names of designers in America,” says the FIT’s Steele. “Department stores like Wanamaker’s and Garfinckel’s” controlled the label. “As late as the 1960s,” she adds, “most department stories deliberately kept designers in the background.”
But it was World War II that made room on the world stage for American Jewish designers. Paris, long the center of couture, was dominated by big-name fashion houses like those of Charles Frederick Worth, Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel—a fashion icon who invented the knit suit for day and the little black dress for evening. Jewish individuals and companies were customers, but few were part of the industry. One exception was Jacques Heim, who was forced to flee Paris during the Nazi occupation. (After the war, he would introduce the bikini.) Behind the scenes, Jews were major investors: Pierre Wertheimer was an early financial backer of Chanel No. 5, and his family would acquire the entire company after the designer’s death.
The fashion landscape was turned upside down when the Nazis rolled into Paris, for all intents and purposes cutting off French couture from its manufacturers and clients. The war also made fashion a luxury that would rob soldiers and armies of needed material. Stanley Marcus, head of the Neiman-Marcus Department Store in Dallas, went to Washington to work for the War Production Board, which promulgated a regulation (the infamous L-85) that limited the amount of fabric in new clothes.
When the war was over, and when British and American fashion writers got their first look at French wartime designs, they were horrified. “While we are wearing rayon,” lamented Vogue, usually a loyal cheerleader for Paris, “the Frenchwoman is wearing yards of silk.” Although the designs were extravagant, truth was that most women in France during the war were freezing, wearing threadbare clothes and culottes that allowed them to bicycle when they could no longer afford petrol for cars.