Bonnie Cashin:
Building the Modern Wardrobe

by Colleen Hill
Curator of Costume and Accessories
The Museum at FIT, New York

Bonnie Cashin is an icon of American fashion, yet her complex designs are too easily distilled into their most conspicuous elements: inspirations from non-Western dress, brilliant color combinations, ingenious hardware closures, and masterful use of leather. A more expansive understanding of Cashin’s singular work can be gained by studying the many interviews with the creator herself, in which her thoughtful and informed approach to design is made clear. One especially compelling exchange with Cashin was featured in the 1972 book The Creative Experience, in which she stated, “I feel that all creative fields are interrelated. Each gives to the other. Perhaps I might have been an architect, perhaps a painter.”1 Cashin’s interest in modern architecture is worthy of greater exploration.

Such interest was most overtly expressed in Cashin’s fall 1951 collection for New York manufacturer Adler & Adler, which featured garments that traced “the parallels in fashion and architecture.”2 A reporter for Women’s Wear Daily described cantilevered necklines and slim smock coats that resembled columns, and further noted that the designer’s double-layer coats “go under the heading of ‘central heating’ in Miss Cashin’s fall building plans.”3 While later collections made less overt references to architecture, such comparisons continued. The author of a 1972 article from Harper’s and Queen wrote that Cashin’s suede clothes had “a rare degree of elegance that owes more to architecture than to couture,” and also noted her ability to combine disparate fabrics with engineered precision.4 The creation of clothing that appeared simultaneously soft and architectural was an especially appealing aspect of Cashin’s work. This effect was best achieved through the application of simple yet striking design elements—such as prominent topstitching or piping that emphasized the geometry of her silhouettes—to supple and textural fabrics.

The overlap between modern architecture and Cashin’s work in fashion extended beyond the look of her garments, emerging also in her design philosophy. Cashin declared the architecture critic Sigfried Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture (first published in 1941) as her “bible,” and a heavily annotated edition of this book was part of her personal library.5 Giedion’s writings on modern architecture and urban planning relate to Cashin’s ideologies in subtle but meaningful ways. In a section titled “The Historian’s Relation to His Age,” Giedion warned that architects who have emulated beautiful historical buildings in an effort to achieve timelessness have, in fact, created little but “lifeless masses of stone.”6He also believed that history “is not simply the repository of unchanging facts, but a process, a pattern of living and changing attitudes and interpretations.”7

These ideas may have informed several of Cashin’s most prominent design principles. In multiple interviews with and stories about the designer, it was clear that she was wary of borrowing too heavily from the past. This was an especially bold stance to take during the 1950s, when the hourglass silhouette—a throwback to the nineteenth century—prevailed. Compared to the clean, uncluttered lines of Cashin’s clothing from the mid-twentieth century, other fashions appear positively anachronistic. Furthermore, in contrast to many of her contemporaries, Cashin created work not driven by trends, and her ideas did not change radically from season to season. She allowed her style to evolve from its own history. Favorite ideas were reused or redeveloped, and might even be adapted in new ways. The functional and ingenious kiss-lock pocket placed on a tweed skirt in 1961, for example, can be seen again on a 1967 leather bag for Coach. Some of Cashin’s many sketches, which she used to market her clothing to buyers and to advise on garment construction, were repeated with only minor modifications to design or fabric.8 A sketch from 1965 includes a note written in Cashin’s own hand: “I’d like my classic Henley jacket cropped shorter—and wear it over a wide’ish bias skirt.”9

This drawing is one of several in which the designer acknowledges one of her own designs as a “classic” style. Over the course of her career, Cashin developed a highly recognizable aesthetic that was neither “in” nor “out” of fashion.10 In spite of standard business principles, she encouraged her clientele to wear her clothing for long periods of time, and the fashion press noted that Cashin garments purchased ten or twenty years earlier still looked fresh.11 This is the very definition of timeless—a term critics and journalists used to describe Cashin’s clothing even as her career continued to thrive. A thoughtful, original approach to design assured that her work was never lifeless.   

Giedion’s writing on Le Corbusier also stands out as being pertinent to Cashin’s work. In describing the architect’s Villa Savoie, built in Poissy, France, between 1928 and 1930, Giedion noted that:

All [of] Le Corbusier’s houses attack the same problem. He was always endeavoring to open up the house, to create new possibilities for connections between its interior and exterior and within the interior itself. We want rooms which can be thrown open or closed at will, rooms whose outer partitions fall away when we wish.12

These words reflect Cashin’s interest in adaptability and layering, the latter being a concept she officially introduced into her collections in 1950. Cashin related her layered designs to her studies of Asian dress, but also mentioned that her passion for architecture provided inspiration for them.13 No longer did women have to change their entire daily ensemble according to weather, location, time of day, or even occasion—they could simply add or subtract garments to adjust to their needs. In another thorough description of Cashin’s work—this time for the Seventh Avenue manufacturer Phillip Sills, with whom she worked from 1953 to 1977—a writer for Women’s Wear Daily enthused:

The versatility of leather fashions that can be worn in town or country, day or night, is demonstrated by the new sheath dress.… As is, it can be worn with jacket for daytime, or alone for cocktails. With a shirt or sweater, it makes a handsome jumper outfit for the country or cool resorts.14

More extreme ideas for layering were suggested for variations in temperature. In its report on a 1965 collection, the New York Times described an ensemble comprising two coats and a hooded suede dress that, in its entirety, would “offer sufficient coverage for a weekend in December above the Arctic Circle.”15 Although layering is now fully integrated into our contemporary fashion lexicon, the notion was initially perceived as innovative and thoroughly modern. Wife Dressing, a style guide written by the fashion designer Ann Fogarty in 1959, provided a marked contrast to Cashin’s progressiveness. Fogarty suggested highly specific clothing for housework, office wear, leisure time, and a variety of social occasions—none of which were adaptable or interchangeable.16

In his 2013 book The Fashion of Architecture, Bradley Quinn observed that Le Corbusier, Hermann Muthesius, and Peter Behrens “coordinated modern architecture like a tailored suit, deploying the logic of [men’s] clothing to divest nineteenth-century architecture of its ornamentation.”17 The architect and author Mark Wigley had explored a similar idea in 1995, equating the smooth, white walls that were fundamental to Le Corbusier’s work to a typical man’s suit built around a plain white shirt.18 Tellingly, when Cashin visited Paris in 1948—shortly after Christian Dior introduced his famously feminine and romantic “New Look” collection—she became captivated more by men’s uniforms and work clothes than by the latest couture.19 While Cashin’s designs occasionally revealed the influence of menswear in a literal way, her general design ethos embodied the notions of coordination and function that appealed to modern architects.

Le Corbusier’s own writing (despite its sexist overtones) proved intriguing in relation to Cashin’s work—and the designer herself considered him a “visionary.”20 Le Corbusier connected architecture and fashion several times in essays from 1923 that formed his book Towards a New Architecture. He stated twice that “Architecture has nothing to do with the various ‘styles.’ The styles of Louis XIV, XV, XVI or Gothic, are to architecture what a feather is on a woman’s head; it is sometimes pretty, though not always, and never anything more.”21 This passage is one of numerous ways by which Le Corbusier warned against over-embellishment and a strong alliance to a particular aesthetic trend—and his sentiment is evocative of Cashin’s own avoidance of stylistic trappings. In describing her admiration for non-Western dress, she stated, “Every time I take a trip to far lands I come back thinking how inelegant we all look with our buttons and bows.”22 Cashin exhibited a similar lack of enthusiasm for popular fashion when asked by Women’s Wear Daily to describe what visitors wore to the 1967 International and Universal Exposition (Expo 67), the World’s Fair held in Montréal. While she dismissively observed that people’s clothing resembled the trendy fare sold on London’s Carnaby Street—by then more of a tourist destination than a hip fashion spot—she was inspired by the unusual forms of the architecture on view.23

But where did Cashin herself choose to live? Not surprisingly, that too was a thoughtful decision. A Northern Californian by birth, Cashin spent the early years of her career in Hollywood and New York, settling permanently in New York in 1949. She moved into the United Nations Plaza after its completion in 1966, a complex designed by the modernist architects Wallace Harrison and Max Abramovitz and located near the banks of the East River. Despite the 300,000 square feet of glass used in the construction of the complex’s two towers—which was hailed as the largest amount of glass ever used for a residential structure at the time—Cashin admitted that she found the building’s façade to be generally unremarkable.24 Yet she fervently described the view from her windows: “[A] wide sweep of sky; it has a long reach of moving water; it has earth and trees and flowering things, and a wonderful vista of a kind of kinetic sculpture, the bustling city itself.”25 This mingling of environments—the quiet beauty of nature offset by the lively city—mirrored the manner in which Cashin’s clothing captured elements of both urban life and the natural world.

One guest to Cashin’s home was the author, theorist, and architect Buckminster Fuller. Although Cashin said that she did not always understand Fuller’s visionary and sometimes offbeat ideas, she was keen to receive his opinion on the creation of the Innovative Design Fund, a nonprofit organization launched by Cashin in 1979 that awarded up to $10,000 to designers of fashion, textiles, and home furnishings to turn their visions into marketable products.26 The fund did not support projects in architecture, yet she emphasized the pertinence of the discipline to her initiative in an oral history conducted by the Fashion Institute of Technology in 1982:

[Y]ou can build all the big, tall, wonderful, interesting buildings and public spaces that form our environment on earth, in our city or in our community, but the people in front of it, who use that [space]—there’s not enough interaction there. I have found that architects, for instance, never think of the human being in their buildings. Or, to a smaller degree than I think is necessary, let’s put it that way. And what we [the Innovative Design Fund] want to do is pick up where architecture leaves and come to the more personal designed environment.27

Cashin died just after the dawn of the new century, on February 3, 2000, at the age of 84. Today we have a greater fluidity and understanding between the fields of architecture and fashion design, fueled in many ways by scientific developments and technological innovations that Cashin would have undoubtedly been interested in. The fashion press frequently reminds us of the fact that contemporary fashion designers such as Virgil Abloh, Tom Ford, and Raf Simons received training in architecture. In addition, several well-known architects—most notably Frank Gehry and the late Zaha Hadid—also tried their hand at fashion. Once again, Bonnie Cashin was ahead of her time.

Colleen Hill
Curator of Costume and Accessories
The Museum at FIT, New York