Fashion maverick Elizabeth Hawes was not a conformist

A successful writer, labor organizer, and WWII-era worker, the Ridgewood native designed transcendent clothing that has been preserved by the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection, now part of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

He was a maverick in the fashion world, says Bettina Berch, who wrote Hawes’ 1988 biography Radical by design.

However, Hawes’ work was crucial. It never went mainstream. “It was tragic that she never got the satisfaction in her life and the credit she deserved from the rest of the world,” Berch said.

Born in 1903, Hawes grew up like a big fish in a small pond, says Berch. His family was decidedly upper-middle class. Her mother, Henrietta Hawes, shaped Ridgewood through tremendous social influence. When Hawes attended Ridgewood High School, her mother became the first woman elected to the city board. The council later named a South Ridgewood Elementary School in her honor.

“His mother was a difficult act to follow,” Berch said. “She was both well educated and progressive.”

Young Hawes, however, took a few steps further with progressive beliefs that went beyond the constructs of her Depression-era society. An advocate of sexual fluidity, “she was just as interested in the liberation of men as she was in the liberation of women,” Berch said.

Advertising leaflet of the fashion designer Elizabeth Hawes, circa 1946.  Hawes was also a newspaper columnist, author, trade union organizer, and women's liberationist.

Uncommon for the time, it emphasized comfort and utility in clothing, even if that meant nudity or disguise. Fashion should be free on multiple levels, Hawes wrote. Basically, Hawes advised never to buy a garment without “going through all the movements you will use when you actually wear it”.

“The things we accept today as OK were hard for the people of his time to take seriously,” Berch said. “She never cared much about approval. Instead, he lived according to an internal compass ”.

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