Bonnie and Buck

Timeline depicting Bonnie Cashin and Buckminster Fuller’s place in American creative and design culture throughout the 20th century.

Bonnie Cashin: The Beginning of a Fashion Icon

Bonnie Cashin (1907-2000) was a mid-twentieth century American fashion institution. A free spirit flying outside the limitations of world of the Seventh Avenue, her practical approach to garment design spoke to, and answered, the needs required by the post-World War II woman’s new fluid way of life. Though questioned greatly at first, the fashion world gradually accepted her point of view over a thirty years period and eventually copied her ideas extensively.  Now, decades after her height of popularity, her designs still form the very foundation of contemporary Western fashion of the 21st century.

Born in Oakland, California in 1907, Bonnie was the only child in a rather nomadic family. Her father, Carl, an invertor and photographer, liked to be on the move and took his family to several homes throughout California over the years before finally settling in Los Angeles. During the course of these moves one aspect of Bonnie’s life was constant: sewing. This skill, which she learned from being a dressmaker apprentice to her mother, Eunice, along with her brilliant design talent would lead her on a journey though the design worlds of ballet, New York Theater, Hollywood motion pictures and, finally, high fashion. Cashin unusually started her design career in the entertainment industry during the late 1920s. Always having a love for dance, she decided to audition for the chorus line of a local dance company. However instead of auditioning, she showed some of her designs to the director and was then asked to join the staff as the costume designer. With some reluctance at moving from California, Bonnie followed the company to the Big Apple in 1932. Less than twenty years old, she traveled to the city she would come to consider her home.

Cashin was the first designer for famous Roxy chorus, known as The Roxyettes. She was responsible for the design and production of three sets of costumes for 24 girls in the troupe, each and every week. Soon enough Cashin was referred to as the “youngest Designer to ever hit Broadway.” Cashin continued to design The Roxyettes stage costumes, but soon became restless once she realized that she was no longer challenged with her job and desired to expand her design horizons. Fortunately for Bonnie, Harper’s Bazaar editor, Carmel Snow, attended a performance and admired the young designer’s costumes. Delighted by Bonnie’s designs, she encouraged her to use her talents designing for the fashion industry and arranged for Cashin to become a designer at the prestigious suit and coat company, Adler and Adler.

Cashin worked at Adler and Adler as chief ready-to–wear designer from 1937 until 1943. Along the way she met with some harsh criticism from the buyers and salesmen in the showrooms.  They complained that her designs were much “too daring” and “too radical.” However, the public showed great enthusiasm for her creations thanks to the growing recognition of sports clothes in the early 1940s. Although her name did not appear on the labels of her designs, her name was becoming well respected amongst the insiders on Seventh Avenue. During these years, Bonnie attended night school at the Art’s Student’s League and met her future husband, Robert Sterner, in one of these classes. They married after a short engagement and unfortunately the marriage was short-lived, as he passed away shortly thereafter. Though their time together was relatively brief, Cashin learned much of what she came to know about color and design from him, as well as an appreciation of art of all kinds. With her recent loss, Cashin felt that she wanted to return to California and be near her family so she resigned her position with Adler and Adler.

Moving back to Hollywood, California in 1943, Bonnie accepted a new challenge by returning to the world of entertainment and took a position as a film costume designer for Twentieth Century Fox. In an era where designers tended to dress their stars in overly glamorous outfits, Cashin showed the world a glimpse of her more relaxed approach to woman’s clothing. Her appreciation of Far Eastern influences lead to her clean approach to design in mainstream fashion, when, after designing wardrobes for another 58 films, Cashin left her job so she might travel and see the world before returning to New York in 1948.

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Figure 2 Bonnie Cashin, Design for Betty as “Russian Princess”, Types, ca. 1932

Return to Ready to Wear: The Bonnie Cashin Label

Faced with many offers, Cashin decided to return Adler and Adler, where she dressed women using simple geometry and sumptuous fabrics. During this first year back in New York, she created a collection, which she called ‘We Live As We Please.’  Inspired by the Orient, with a contemporary woman in mind, Cashin created uncluttered clothing without ‘pointless’ trims. Her collection consisted of layering lightweight separates that could be mixed and matched. Buyers considered her to be a fashion maverick, compared to the looks being shown in paris consisting of a single coat over a dress. Her ‘We Live As We Please’ collection introduced a completely new casual look for the American woman and catapulted Cashin’s career upward resulting in great recognition. She emphasized function and comfort and insisted that a good design must also be functional design.


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Figure 4. Gene Tierney as “Laura” with Dana Andrews Design by Bonnie Cashin

As Cashin began to make a name for herself in the industry, a revolution in fashion occurred with The February 12, 1947 unveiling of Christian Dior’s first spring collection. The look of post war European fashion was inspired by the desire to return a time of peaceful nostalgic beauty, long before two world wars tore Europe and most of the world apart. Dior, himself, was inspired by his memory of his mother and her contemporaries floating about in their Bell Époque fashions with skirts resembling flowers and the rustling of petticoats filling the air as they glided about the streets of Paris. It was Cashin’s belief, after seeing the impractical and restrictive influence of Christian Dior and his contemporaries, that American women wanted a more comfortable and relaxed wardrobe. Her subsequent designs led to a gradual reimagining of Western fashion. One might even say that she was the anti-Dior of American fashion.

Throughout the 1950s, Cashin presented original collections showcasing her innovative use of fabrics and styling.  Basic sheath dresses and coats were made unique in their fabrics, using organdy over linen or tweed over jersey. She teamed with Phillip Sills, a leather manufacturer, in 1953; to develop her unique leather piped sportswear that became one of her trademarks. The partnership of Bonnie Cashin’s practical designs and Sills’ craftsmanship had a tremendous impact on women’s fashion and by the mid-1950s leather had become one of the most used materials across the industry.

Bonnie looked at women and how they wanted to live, or how she felt they needed to live, and designed wardrobes for this way of life. Unique at this time in fashion history, she gave the design community a peek at what was yet to come in American Sportswear. While the rest of the design world was focused on the aesthetic side of design, Cashin’s designs allowed women to live their lives unconcerned about their wardrobes. Her pragmatism became know as ‘the Cashin look’—comfortable country and travel clothes in wool jersey, knits, tweeds canvas, and leather…in functional layers of clothing, coordinated with her own designs of hoods, bags, boots and belts.

As the 1950s segued into the 1960s, American design was beginning to be recognized for its approach to casual, yet stylish dressing. Bonnie was recognized, along with Geoffrey Beene, as the two designers leading this approach. Though their signatures were very different, Bonnie Cashin and Geoffrey Beene shared a common-sense, practical and innovative approach to design.

The Inspiration

In the 1960s Bonnie Cashin continued to refine her designs for separates, usually constructed in wool, cotton, and leather. Many of her concepts were ahead of her time; her streamlined hooded dresses and capes in particular would not come into their own until the 1970s. Bonnie Cashin’s collections of the early 1960s featured an early interest in op art, even before other designers picked up on this influence. Staying true to her own aesthetic, Cashin reimagined the overlapping of patterns by her selection of bold plaids for her tweeds, flannels and knits. Unlike other designers who would later appropriate op art in silk for dresses, Cashin applied it to heavier, sportswear garments. She turned toward new ethnic influences, long before others looked to them, taking her inspiration from peasant ponchos, along with American Indian hand woven blankets, as well as the use of suede and leather for garments and trim which date back to her work with leather manufacturer Sills and Company.

By designing costumes for Anna and the King of Siam, Cashin learned about the esthetics of orient, which might inspire her to leave her job and travel. Before she returned to New York in 1949, she traveled to see the world especially the Far East where she saw the aspect of layering and with all the Asian influence she designed ponchos, mantles capes and togas for her premiere 1949 collection that she applied elements of traditional Japanese garments on.

Then with the believe to design functional and practical garment for contemporary women’s daily life, Cashin returned Adler and Adler and created uncluttered clothing without “pointless” trims and layered lightweight garments in a mix and match manner. Her emphasize on function and comfort distinguished her in fashion world along with the Fashion Critics Award and the Nieman Marcus Award.

The Label Lives On

In 1962, Cashin became the sole designer for Miles and Lillian Cahn’s men’s wallet and cigarette case company, Coach. Still today, Coach bases their designs off of Cashin and her easy to wear style. In the mid-1960s, Cashin partnered with Ballantyne, a Scottish knitting company, producing body hugging, cowl neck, cashmere funnel sweaters, based on op art and African themes. After several years, in 1968, she broke the connection with Ballantyne. She formed The Knittery to produce and distribute her own knitted fashions, using the talents of hand knitters in Scotland and upstate New York.

The world began to follow Bonnie’s lead and to recognize her fresh by the late 1960s. ‘Fashion Catches Up to Cashin” reads a headline in The New York Times in 1968:

Bonnie Cashin cultists can rejoice.  Their favorite, who has been doing her own thing for 15 years, suddenly finds herself in fashion’s mainstream. Leather, which she has been plugging away at since she joined Sill and Company, has become the fashion of the hour. Canvas and tweed, her enthusiasm, are not far behind. Her hardware fastenings, which she prefers to buttons, decorate most other designers’ clothes, too, and her idea of piling clothes on in layers to adjust to the climate has become universal.

The 1970s found the fashion industry crossing over from its former marketing orientation and no longer dictated fashion to consumers. Now they analyzed what the consumer needed and wanted and designed to fit the needs of their customers. The major couture houses like Giorgio Armani, Gianni Versace, Valentino, and Missoni all began to look for lifestyle for fashion inspiration, finally coming around to understand the design inspiration that Bonnie Cashin pioneered 20 years earlier. Entire collections now gave the consumer a choice as to how she wanted to put looks together. Bonnie Cashin had the foresight and wisdom to explore and implement low cost versions of her fashion decades before them.

Throughout the 1970s, Cashin’s designs mostly included pants and pantsuits, but not in the traditional manner of other designers.  Her pants were topped with toggle-closure vests under wrap jackets or hooded jersey sweaters, all topped with another vest or ponchos. She continued to show leather piping and patchwork, suede garments, and remained ever constant to her design philosophy, layering, that continues to be a base for many styles today. By 1980, Bonnie began to remove herself from the workaday world of fashion so she might focus her efforts establishing the Innovative Design Fund, a not-for profit organization which funds design prototypes. In 1985, she retired, spending her time painting and donating her energies to her philanthropic projects until her death on February 2, 2000.

Cashin left an immense signature on fashion, in general, and on American sportswear, specifically. While laying this foundation to our modern mode of dressing, she always remained true to her design sense and let her customers lead her because, in fact, she was her own best customer.  She led an active life, involved in the theatre, arts, travel, leisure activities, and perfecting her at fabric design and apparel development. Her creations possessed an innate practicality she felt was needed by the modern American woman.

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Figures 20 & 21. Bonnie Cashin’s Studio as it appeared upon her death. U.N. Plaza, New York City, Photo by Injoo Kim University of Cincinnati Archives