Highlighting Norman Norell, New York’s almost-forgotten fashion designer


Mimi Maxmen has delayed giving out an essay assignment to her students at Manhattan’s Parsons School of Design — and The Museum at Fashion Institute of Technology is to blame.

Maxmen teaches a fashion history course that stretches from the 19th century, and in less than a few weeks, her students will get to see the work of one of that period’s key designers as FIT is set to feature Norman Norell beginning Feb. 9.

There Maxmen and her class — and the rest of the public — will get to see roughly 100 of Norell’s outfits and accessories.

“He really was the first — well, earliest — fashion designer whose work appealed to the American wealthy upper classes who wore couture clothing,” Maxmen said. Before then, Americans followed the dictates of European couture.

European factories, which had been used for wartime production, were damaged during the bombings of two world wars, severely crippling the European couture houses in France, Italy and England. That opened the door for the United States to step in and develop its own brand of design and couture.

“The emergence of America as the world power after war legitimized American design,” Maxmen said. “Europe paid attention.”

Norell was a talented designer who moved into fashion’s forefront at the right time, she said. All of the high-end department stores carried his clothes.

During his career, Norell received some of the industry’s most prestigious awards, including the Neiman Marcus Award for Distinguished Service in the Field of Fashion in 1942, and the Coty American Fashion Critics’ awards over multiple years between 1943 and 1966.

“Unless someone mounts an exhibit, you won’t hear the name,” Maxmen said. “He was everywhere, and now young people haven’t a clue who he is.”

Norell dressed actresses like Lauren Bacall and Marilyn Monroe, former first ladies Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Lady Bird Johnson, and socialites like Babe Paley. Singers Dinah Shore and Lena Horne also were clients.

0n the big screen, Norell’s designed clothing for the 1962 film “That Touch of Mink” and 1963’s “The Wheeler Dealers.”

“A lot of what he did is as relevant now as then,” said Diane Roth, owner of L’Armoire in New Canaan, Connecticut. She’s received about a dozen inquiries about pieces by Norell last year. Roth sells high-end clothing and accessories, and carries vintage garments.

“The modern designers, if you look at their designs with the big buttons and the four pockets, that’s very Norman Norell,” Roth said.

Designer Donna Karan’s 1985 collection “Seven Easy Pieces” reflected a Norell influence.

“If you look at her silhouette in her original line with the twisted front,” Roth said, “the shape is heavily based on his things.”

Helen Uffner, owner of Helen Uffner Vintage Clothing in Queens, became a collector of Norell’s pieces by accident. Her company rents costumes to television and film productions.

She purchased items for herself based on what she liked, “and they just happen to be Norell.”

Uffner’s collection, which she does not rent out, includes a black wool knit dress with a self-belt, a long white wool crepe “with extraordinary buttons,” an all-sequined evening gown with a plunging back, and a satin evening coat completely covered in three-dimensional poppies.

Uffner praised “the workmanship and the attention to craftsmanship and the attention to detail” of Norell’s garments.

“Sometimes designers will concentrate (so much) on the outside that they won’t pay attention to things like buttonholes, and they won’t pay attention to lining,” Uffner said. “But these are as beautifully made as interiors as they are exteriors. He respected what was seen and what was not seen equally.”

Norell is perhaps best known for his glittery “mermaid” gowns. He used thousands of hand-sewn sequins on knitted jersey, where he could cut a rounded neck and use a variety of sleeves.

While some of the pieces in the show date back to the 1930s, the museum will focus on his day and evening wear between 1960 and 1972.

Before the world knew him as Norman Norell, Norman David Levinson was born in 1900 in Noblesville, Indiana. He moved to New York to study illustration at Parsons School of Design in 1919, later transferring to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. It was there he renamed himself “Norman Norell.”

Next, he worked for Hattie Carnegie, a leading fashion house at the time, and later left to partner with Anthony Traina in the 1940s for their own label, Traina-Norell.

In the 1960s, Norell designed solely under his own name, before dying in 1972.

The FIT show opens Feb. 9 and runs through April 14.

Fans of Norell’s work like Maxmen, Roth and Uffner — who all plan to attend the exhibition — are happy a new generation of designers and museum visitors of all ages will have the chance to see his work and his contribution to American fashion. At least in this respect, Norell’s name will not be lost to history.

“He was famous in America as Dior and Chanel (were) in Europe,” Maxmen said. “He was the American designer at that particular time. Norell was in a class by himself.”