Posted By Margery Krevsky on October 15, 2009
From October 18 to January 17, the Detroit Institute of Arts will showcase 200 works of Richard Avedon, the premier fashion photographer of the 20th Century. He captured the fashion, social, political and cultural changes influencing the lives of women and fashion mainly in the 1950’s and 60’s. During this time car design (fashion) was having its’ own field day with fins, excess chrome, massive front grilles, gull wing doors and automotive personalities with movie star ratings.
Every season we receive fashion designer decrees: pant dressing is queen or hemlines up – down, dresses filled with sparkles, or angular cuts devoid of bling. As Detroiters, we celebrate fashion with this tribute to Avedon and our own fall pilgrimage to stores to find the best knock-offs of this national news. The car designers also create and make fashion changes: interiors get an overhaul with wood, fabric and more cup holders. Exteriors and car shapes morph creating cultural statements for the diversity of buyers. Seeing the new car models every year is part of our culture. Attending the Detroit Auto Show (North American International Auto Show) each January to see the concept cars, and vehicle fashion ideas for the future is a tradition for many of us.
Fashions that showed up in Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue from the lens of Avedon also appeared on auto show models at the 70+ shows around the country. The history of the auto show is not only one of cars, but also of wearable fashion statements of each era from ball gowns by Bill Blass to smart suits by Oscar de la Renta. Car manufacturers have created special edition vehicles by Coach, Bill Blass, and Ralph Lauren. The public loves fashion and having a car with this special significance sold to a select group of fashion savvy buyers.
In 1953 General Motors enlisted couturier, Hattie Carnegie, to design a collection of clothes to coordinate with their 10 major vehicles on the auto show floor. During the New York Auto Show, society ladies were invited to a fashion luncheon at the Waldorf Astoria where these clothes and vehicles were on display in discreet good taste.
This was the first publicized cooperative effort between the car and fashion industries. A poster was created called “Fashions on Parade”. This advertising visual also ran in LIFE magazine. The ensembles reflected the personality of each vehicle from long evening gowns to casual dresses. The idea took root and many future alliances were to be made between well known designers and the automotive world.
Avedon, arguably the most widely celebrated fashion photographer, embraced the little black dress of his favorite muse, Audrey Hepburn, the elegant ball gowns of Hattie Carnegie (our first designer/car collaborator), the fishnet tights and short skirts of Forty-second Street hookers, the suiting’s of the elegant Parisian couture.
Fashion is synonymous with auto shows throughout history. Early exhibitions in New York City and Chicago featured multiple posters of the Gibson Girl, the first national standard for feminine beauty. She was statuesque, youthful, ephemeral beauty with hair piled high upon her head in a pompadour, narrow waist and hour glass figure.
“It is estimated that some seven to ten thousand people paid fifty cents a piece that first evening (November 3, 1900) to pass in front of Malcolm Strauss’ poster of a fashionably-attired Gibson Girl seated behind the steering lever of a dainty runabout,” writes Gregg D. Merksamer in his book, “A History of the New York International Auto Show.”
The pairings of cars and fashion models came together as an advertisement targeting lifestyles through magazine fashion pages. This, in turn, became an invitation to women drivers of the 1950s Levittown’s and bungalow-villes in fast rising suburbs to shuttle their children to school and talent lessons in an array of compact, low-slung, pastel cars.
At the same time Avedon helped usher in the era of big name models, paving the way for such celeb fares as Twiggy, Penelope Tree and Veruschka. In succeeding years, his photography subjects wore dresses with high-powered shoulder pads and sophisticated pant suits with wide legs. Cars mirrored the statement with status logos, the upsurge of interest in Mercedes and BMW. At the far edge of sophistication, John Z. DeLoreon introduced a gull-wing, all aluminum car and he married a world class fashion model.
Automakers began tapping the expertise of top fashion designers prominent in America, including Bob Mackie, and Gucci in the 1970’s. In the same time period Cadillac outfitted product specialists in Paris couture to align its vehicles with the ultimate fashion statement.
Outfitting today’s product specialists at the auto shows means understanding the brand and the brand message. Fashion sends this message along with the exhibit.
Today creating a fashion look for the auto show floor may not come “off the rack” of a store but rather is specifically designed to reflect the elements of design in the vehicles on display. This is a recent trend. At Productions Plus the head of the wardrobe department visits the garment district in New York City for ideas carefully analyzing the best trends in color, shape and texture. Auto executives relate to her the word symbols, colors and marketing plans. By combining both of these elements the designer creates a group of sketches from which auto show decision makers review. Working a year in advance this system of exactly hitting the brand credentials is a major and usually successful creative effort.
Clothes can’t just look good, like a Vogue model or a lady in a beaded gown on a 1960’s auto show altar. Today’s product specialist could haul boxes of brochures from storage areas, restock containers near the information booths and deftly show how rear seating folds for additional space. The current day wardrobe must match this pace and the shear physicality of work. Fabrics and workmanship must withstand a barrage of hot lights and lots of movement. These clothes are meant for active work.
Former 1982 auto show model, Anita Mitzel, painfully recalls a shiny plastic vinyl gown she wore at one show. The fabric didn’t breathe. After an hour in the sweat provoking fabric she learned the meaning of endurance. At the end of the day she rushed off to a 24-hour dry cleaner to resurrect the dress for the next day’s show. Somehow she survived the season.
Bring your camera to the auto show; there are Avedon like subjects waiting. And bring yourself to the Avedon show at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Wear something wonderful. Hope to see you there.
Margery Krevsky is the author of Sirens of Chrome: the Enduring Allure of Auto Show Models A 2009 Michigan Notable Book
Published by Momentum Publishing
Maureen McDonald contributed research to this article