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Norell, Norman

design clothing levinson american

B. April 20, 1900

D. October 25, 1972

Birthplace: Noblesville, Indiana

Awards: Neiman Marcus Award, Dallas, Texas, 1942
         Coty American Fashion Critics Award, 1943, 1951, 1956, 1958, 1966
         Parsons Medal for Distinguished Achievement, 1956
         Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts, Pratt Institute, 1962
         Sunday Times International Fashion Award, London, 1966
         City of New York Bronze Medallion, 1972

Norman Norell, known in his earlier years as Norman David Levinson, was raised by his parents, Harry and Nettie Levinson, who owned a men’s hat store. In 1905 the family moved to Indianapolis where they opened Harry Levinson and Company, a men’s clothing store, which is still owned by the Levinson family and managed by Norell’s great great nephews, Paul and Carl.

Following high school, Norell joined the military, since he had no interest in joining the family business. After he returned from the service, Norell’s mother realized her son’s talent in clothing design. She helped to finance his trip to New York to study illustration at the Parsons School of Design, as well as figure drawing and costume design at Pratt Institute from 1920 to 1922.

After college, Norell worked building movie sets and designing costumes for the Astoria Studio of Paramount Pictures in Long Island from 1922 to 1923. The studio closed in 1923, and Norell joined the Brooks Costume Company as a theatrical designer from 1924 to 1928. In 1928 Norell approached Hattie Carnegie for a design position, offering to use his own fabrics and to pay personally for any mistakes he made. She agreed to his terms, and Norell came on board to design dresses for Hollywood actresses and other socialites. Norell’s experience with Carnegie allowed him to travel to Paris to review collections, to meet influential clients, and, most important, to perfect his art.

In 1941, after twelve years with Hattie Carnegie, he obtained a position with Anthony Trainer, a prominent dress manufacturer. Norell, who had always been behind the scenes, finally received recognition by sharing the Traina label. Norell was now at the peak of his career, designing ready-made clothing that resembled couture. Like most designers of this era, wartime restrictions limited the materials Norell had at his disposal, but this did not stop Norell from giving the American woman what she wanted.

During the 1940s, Norell developed signature looks that he would carry throughout his career. Wool jersey shirt-waisted dresses with exaggerated bow collars, jersey town coats, fur trims on tops and jackets, shirtdresses with slim silhouettes for daytime, and leopard prints characterized the Norell look. In the 1950s he began mixing jersey with organdy, taffeta, and satin in both his day-wear and evening-wear ensembles of slim tops paired with full skirts. Norell also popularized the flyaway bolero jacket and short overcoat accompanied by a simple blouse with an exaggerated bow. In 1960, with the help of investors, Norell purchased Traina-Norell after Traina’s death. Norell was soon the first American designer to have his name on a clothing label.

The daring sixties brought shorter skirt lengths exposing the knees. Norell showed a short-length belted chemise dress, a new shorts suit with his now famous culottes, and a masculine jumpsuit as a new direction for women’s fashions. His striking evening wear was often trimmed in fur or embellished with jeweled necklines. In 1968 Norell was the first American designer to launch a perfume, Norell, produced by Revlon. Norell, a perfectionist, took pride in being involved in developing the scent of the perfume and would not release it until the aroma was just right.

In his final years, Norell’s signature silhouettes and fabrics were still carried throughout his lines, with the addition of contrasting colors in the seventies. His final collection consisted of shirt-waisted dresses, short jackets with pants, and overcoats with bias-cut pockets in his usual silhouettes, made of grey, beige, and white checked wool. Norell was a kind, gentle man who shared his knowledge by volunteering at Parson’s school, where a room was named in his honor. Norell struggled with cancer for over ten years but still found time to pursue his favorite passion, designing clothes. Norell was known to be one step ahead of the European designers. He had the gift of keeping clothing simple and practical, but still striking. His clothes are considered fine-quality classics. Unfortunately, a stroke prevented Norell from viewing the fifty-year retrospective of his work given by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Norell will not be forgotten; his ideas continue to live in the work of other designers’ creations.

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