Hattie Carnegie (1886? – 1956) There is some disagreement over the year in which Hattie Carnegie was born. It could be as early as 1880 to as late as 1889. Most sources suggest 1886.
However, there is no disagreement about the fact that, while Carnegie was among the most famous, admired, and influential fashion designers during the first half of the twentieth century, she could neither sew nor cut a pattern herself. What she possessed was an eye for gathering talented people to work for her and the ability to explain her ideas to these designers so they could bring Carnegie’s inspirations to life.
Many designers who worked for Hattie Carnegie became notable designers and arbiters of style in their own right. These include Pauline Potter (later Baroness Philippe de Rothschild), Norman Norell, Claire McCardell, James Galanos, Jean Louis, and Travis Banton. They all began their careers under the direction of Carnegie.
Hattie Carnegie was born Henrietta Kanengeiser in Vienna, the second of seven children. In 1892, she immigrated with her family to New York’s Lower East Side. By 1909, she changed her name to Carnegie because, at the time, it was the surname of the richest person in America, Andrew Carnegie.
Hattie began her career as a milliner. Her father, an artist and designer, introduced her to the world of fashion and design .In 1909 she opened her first shop in partnership with seamstress Rose Roth on New York’s East 10th Street and named it, Carnegie – Ladies Hatter. Roth sewed the dresses and Carnegie designed the hats.
By 1913, they incorporated and moved the shop to a more fashionable location on West 86th Street and Riverside Drive. In 1914, the business name changed to Hattie Carnegie, Inc. It was here that Carnegie started manufacturing high-quality costume jewelry to complement her clothing line.
During this time, fashion leaders Mrs. Harrison Williams and Mrs. William Randolph Hearst became Carnegie clients. They were the first of a long list of the rich and famous to do so. In 1918, Carnegie bought out Roth and began selling her own designs and travelling to France to bring back Parisian fashions she restyled and remodeled for her American customers.
In 1927, Carnegie married Major John Zanft, a childhood friend from the Lower East Side. Zanft worked in the motion picture industry and was a former vice president of Fox Films. In 1928, she relocated to what would become flagship dress shop on East 49th Street. Among her famous clients were actresses Joan Crawford, Tallulah Bankhead, and Gertrude Lawrence; heiress Barbara Hutton, and the Duchess of Windsor.
Carnegie’s belief in simplicity of design matched fashion trends of the 1930s. She wanted her designs to be elegant, sophisticated and timeless. As business grew, Carnegie added a modestly priced, ready-to-wear line of clothing. She permitted just one department store in a city to carry her new line which was a departure from selling her clothes only at her own shop.
Eventually, Carnegie introduced a line called, “Spectators Sports,” that soon became the most profitable branch of her business. It secured her influence over both haute couture and popular wear. She also added accessories, perfumes, chiffon handkerchiefs, silk hose, and a line of cosmetics to her collections. By the 1940s Hattie Carnegie was well established as one of America’s top designers.
Carnegie’s early jewelry was produced in small quantities each season to accessorize her newest designs. Consequently, these pieces are relatively rare in today’s market. Collectors value her early clips and pins in vermeil silver or base metal. Large retro-style abstracts and interesting enamel figurals, such as animals and human faces all fetch top prices. Such early pieces usually bear the “H.C.” marked in a diamond-shaped frame.
Carnegie’s jewelry designs were her own creations. She avoided fine jewelry trends then appearing on the market, but not their expensive pricing. Joan Crawford bought and wore much of the Carnegie jewelry which often consisted of flux pearls, plastic stones, beads, rhinestones and other materials with enamel and gold plated and silver plated metals.
Carnegie’s jewelry designs were thought whimsical and included Oriental pieces, tremblers or noddlers and figurals. Among her later pieces, collectors look for Carnegie’s large 1950s bibs, cabochon and paste designs along with the unique “trembling” necklaces, where butterflies and flowers set on tiny springs vibrate as the wearer moves. By the later 1950s and into the 1960s, Carnegie jewelry was mass-produced.
Known for tailored daytime wear that especially suited smaller women; Carnegie also produced beaded and embroidered evening suits with finely detailed collars and jeweled buttons. One of her best known suits, introduced in the early 1950s, featured a straight skirt topped by a jacket fitted at the waist and flared over the hips. Carnegie always used beautiful fabric and the excellent workmanship of the finished product were among her hallmarks.
She adapted French style to American tastes. This made Hattie Carnegie one of the most famous and influential fashion designers in America. Her designs were copied by popularly priced designers of the time.
Her outstanding work was recognized when she received the Neiman-Marcus Award in 1939 and, in 1948, the Coty American Fashion Critics’ Award for “consistent contribution to American elegance.”
While Carnegie had a hugely successful career, perhaps her proudest moment came when she designed the uniform for the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) in 1950. Which were adopted for wear on New Year’s Day 1951.
On 1 June 1952, Hattie received the Congressional Medal of Freedom for the uniform’s design and for her many other charitable and patriotic contributions. The WAC design was so timelessly elegant that it was still in use as late as 1968.
Hattie Carnegie died in New York City on February 22, 1956. The Carnegie Company was sold to Larry Josephs after her death and production of Hattie Carnegie jewelry and clothing continued. The company changed hands again when it was acquired by the Chromology American Corp. in 1976.
Hattie Carnegie designs are in the collection holdings of the Costume Institute at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Lifestyle & Fashion History in Boynton Beach, Florida.
“To show the American woman herself off to best advantage—that has always been my aim and that is my real biography.”