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Carnegie, Hattie - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: Hattie Carnegie

fashion clothes business york

(1889-1956)
Hattie Carnegie, Inc.

Overview

During the 1930s, Hattie Carnegie was one of America’s top fashion designers. She propagated the " little black dress" for daytime wear, trained a new generation of designers, and made her creations available to the middle class by selling ready-to wear clothes for modest prices.

Personal Life

Hattie Carnegie was born Henrietta Kanengeiser, the second of seven children in Vienna in 1889. After a fire destroyed their home in the suburbs of Vienna, her father, Isaac Kanengeiser, took the family to the United States. They moved to the Lower East Side of New York City, where Hattie attended public school.

Hattie’s father, an artist and designer, worked in New York’s garment industry, and introduced her to the fashion world. When Hattie was 13, her father died and she was forced to leave school. To help support the family, she started working for Macy’s. However, following her true passion, she designed hats for neighborhood women in her spare time. Soon after, Hattie got a job trimming hats in a millinery workroom and worked as a millinery model. She changed her name from Kanengeiser to Carnegie, in admiration of the wealthy Andrew Carnegie.

Carnegie was married three times. After two short marriages in 1918 and 1922, she finally married John Zanft in 1927. Called “an East Side boy himself” in Current Biography 1942, John was “the love of her life since she was thirteen years old.” However, while her husband spent most of his time on the west coast working for the movie industry, Carnegie worked mainly in New York and Paris.

After her business had grown, Carnegie provided all her brothers and sisters with important positions. One of her sisters, for example, was a director of her company, one brother was secretary and treasurer, while another brother was in charge of the main wholesale department in New York.

Hattie Carnegie was a tiny, slender, and very attractive woman. She loved clothes and always dressed in the most current mode, but never wore hats. Carnegie enjoyed giving dinner parties and going out for dinner or dancing, and she had a weakness for gambling. She also collected antique furniture, modern paintings, and old porcelains.

Her outstanding work was recognized by two awards: the Neimann-Marcus Award in 1939 and the Coty American Fashion Critics’ Award for “consistent contribution to American elegance” in 1948. Hattie Carnegie died on February 22, 1956 in New York City.

Career Details

Carnegie started her career as a milliner. In 1909, she started her first business. Encouraged by Rose Roth, a friend and neighbor who was a seamstress, she opened a shop on East Tenth Street called “Carnegie-Ladies Hatter.” Rose made dresses; Hattie designed hats, modeled the rather expensive clothes and took care of customers.

The shop’s success enabled Carnegie and Roth to incorporate with $100,000 in capital in 1913 and they moved to West 86th Street, close to fashionable Riverside Drive. The New Yorker stated, “The shop was on a corner of Broadway, with a delicatessen on one side and a Chinese restaurant on the other, and pungent cooking fumes invaded the place as rich women flocked in.” After World War I, Carnegie bought out her partner, founded Hattie Carnegie, Inc., and became its president and major stockholder. The shop soon became popular among followers of fashion and was a tremendous success. In 1919, Hattie Carnegie made her first buying trip to Paris and became devoted to Paris fashion. She moved her business to the fashionable Upper East Side of New York in 1926. By 1929, the company’s sales had reached $3.5 million a year.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Carnegie made several trips a year to Paris. She returned with many examples of Paris’ latest fashions and blended French style with comfort, a combination that matched the taste of many fashion-conscious Americans. Carnegie’s designs were described in Who’s Who in Fashion 1988 as “youthful and sophisticated, never faddy or extreme. She was noted for suits with nipped waists and rounded hips, especially becoming to smaller women, embroidered, beaded evening suits, at-home pajamas, long wool dinner dresses and theater suits. Beautiful fabrics and excellent workmanship were hallmarks, anything but the best was abhorrent to her.”

Most Americans, however, were not able to afford Carnegie’s original designer clothes. During the Depression, even many rich customers had problems paying their bills. In 1932, her corporation filed a famous lawsuit against New York mayor James J. Walker and his wife for $12,059, the balance due on a $20,059 bill. Adapting to the new market situation, Carnegie launched a less expensive ready-to-wear line, which she first sold in her New York retail shop. Eventually, she introduced a new wholesale line, Spectator Sports, with ready-to-wear copies of Carnegie clothes sold for as little as $50 a piece.

In order to make her modestly priced clothes more available to the average consumer, she decided to break from her practice of selling her clothes exclusively at her own shop. However, only one department store in a city was able to buy her creations. Thus, she avoided becoming her own competition and, at the same time, preserved the exclusiveness of Carnegie products. Inspired by the Parisian houses of haute couture, Hattie Carnegie showed her collections to customers four times a year at her wholesale department at 711 Fifth Avenue. The wholesale branch of her business soon became the most profitable one.

By the 1940s, Carnegie oversaw a multi-million dollar business and had established herself as one of the country’s top designers. Society beauties as well as famous actresses who wore her clothes in their films were on her customer list. Hattie Carnegie’s firm consisted of the retail shop in New York, two resort shops, two wholesale businesses, and several factories. As her business grew, she added accessories, perfumes, chiffon handkerchiefs, silk hose, and a line of cosmetics, competing with products by Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein.

Hattie Carnegie did not believe in the cult of personality that dominated much of the high-fashion world. She did not care for personal publicity, and believed that no single individual was crucial to the success of her business. Once her head designer, hoping to strike out on his own, left with her entire collection. Within three weeks she had designed and produced a whole new collection for the new season. A collection usually consisted of 100-150 models.

Carnegie spent long hours doing the work she loved, but, as stated in Notable American Women, “disliked shop talk and avoided associating with business people. She made no attempt to educate women to fashion, resented ugly customers, and hated fashion lunches, newspaperwomen, and fashion experts. Preferring her employees to be stylish, good looking, and blonde, she was fiercely loyal to those she liked.”

By the time of her death in 1956, Carnegie’s business was worth over $8 million.

Social and Economic Impact

Her ideas of simple, beautiful clothes which enhance, but do not overpower the woman who wears them, made Hattie Carnegie one of the most famous and influential fashion designers of her time in the United States. Her creations were widely copied by the designers of popular-priced clothes and, therefore, had an influence over haute couture as well as popular wear.

The “little Carnegie suit” was a basic item in a woman’s wardrobe. She later modified it for the U.S. Army’s Women’s Army Corps uniform. She also created a modernized habit for the Carmelite nuns. Her film work included the clothes for Constance Bennett in the 1932 movie Two Against the World and for Joan Fontaine in the film Born To Be Bad in 1950.

Carnegie’s booming firm drew young designers throughout the 1930s, and she showed a great feeling for discovering talent, and trained a generation of fashion designers that determined American style for decades. Among others, Norman Norell, Claire McCardell, Paula Trigere, Pauline De Rothschild, James Galanos, and Jean Louis, learned their craft under her tutelage.

According to Who’s Who in Fashion 1988, Hattie Carnegie is said to have been the first American custom designer with a ready-to-wear label. Introducing the practice of selling her creations for modest prices in department stores, she led the foundation of a million dollar fashion industry. In 1956, more than a thousand employees worked for her company.

Chronology: Hattie Carnegie

1889: Born.

1909: First shop opened.

1913: Founded Corporation with Rose Roth.

1919: First buying trip to Paris.

1930s: Introduced first wholesale line Spectator Sports.

1932: Filed lawsuit against New York mayor James L. Walker.

1940: Established as top designer in the United States.

1956: Hattie Carnegie Inc. had over 1000 employees.

1956: Died.

Hattie Carnegie proved to be able to design clothes without being able to sketch, cut, or sew-by explaining her ideas to the people who set them into practice. She also showed that women could not only dress women, but also had all it took to succeed as business leaders.

Carnes, Kim [next] [back] Carnegie, Andrew (1835-1919)

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