“That’s One Small Step for a Woman, One Giant Leap for Fashion!”

Coco Chanel revolutionized fashion by freeing women from the constraints of corseted fashions

On July 20th, Neil Armstrong (who died at the age of 82 in 2012) uttered what would become one of history’s most famous one-liners. But before he could make that “one small step” he, along with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins needed those all-important spacesuits.

A group of girdle and bra making seamstresses who worked for Playtex made the suits comprising of 21 layers of a state-of-the-art gossamer-thin fabric. They were sewn to a precise tolerance of 1/64th of an inch on a sewing machine. They had to be perfect, and they were

Of course, we all know that several NASA researchers who made space flight available were a group of black women. They actually did the trajectory equations that would successfully land men on the moon. Joanne Thompson, Lillie Elliot, and Ruth Anna Ratledge played a critical role in the aeronautics industry and were celebrated in the book “Hidden Figures.” It became an award-winning movie. JoAnn Morgan, the lone woman among the many men, manned the controls panels in Florida on those historic days.

In honor of the women who calculated and sewed their way into history, I wanted to celebrate 15 of the most important women designers of the 20th and 21st centuries. Their innovations and creations may not have put a man on the moon, but they have altered the course of fashion. With one small step, they have influenced fashion by leaps and bounds.

Madame Vionnet

Mme. Vionnet wrap dress made from just 3 pieces of fabric
Mme. Vionnet wrap dress made from just 3 pieces of fabric

Madame Vionnet (1876-1975) considered to be a master of manipulating fabric and is credited as the inventor, or perfect-or of the bias cut. Her many contributions to modern fashion include popularizing Grecian style dresses.

She introduced fingerprinted labels to assure authenticity and was the first French couture house to open a subsidiary in New York: Madeleine Vionnet Inc. The salon, which sold ‘one-size-fits-all’ designs with unfinished hems that could be adjusted to fit the client was arguably the first ‘prêt-á-porter ever made.

JEANNE LANVIN

A design by Jeanne Lanvin

Jeanne Lanvin (1867 – 1946) built the longest running fashion house in the world. It is still around to this day. Jeanne a visionary and a pioneer. She was the first designer to recognize the potential of a lifestyle brand. The designer gradually built an empire by developing the brand’s businesses to meet the needs of an ever-changing society.

Jeanne was the first to launch a children’s line. The first to offer a men’s made-to-measure line, and one of the first to create a perfume and eau de toilette, Arpege. At a time when corsetry was still imprisoning women, her designs were fluid and simplistic, with shapes that followed the natural lines of a woman’s body.

COCO CHANEL

Coco Chanel and Arthur Boy Capel
Coco Chanel and Arthur Boy Capel

Gabrielle Coco Chanel (1881 – 1971) liberated women from the constraints of the corseted silhouette. She popularized a sporty, casual chic as the feminine standard of style. Coco introduced what are now staples of sportswear by borrowing from the vocabulary of menswear. Coco was an avowed tomboy and was very influenced by the clothing worn by her boyfriend and muse, English polo player Boy Capel.

Among the things she proposed was costume jewelry (worn piled on), jersey, and the little black dress. Also the striped Breton top, the braid trimmed, gilt buttoned boxy cardigan jacket, and the cap-toe pump. She was also the first to create a branded perfume.

ELSA SCHIAPARELLI

Elsa Schiaparelli an Salvador Dali jewelry collaboration

Elsa Schiaparelli (1890 -1973) believed fashion was art and she infused a level of humor into fashion. She is a forerunner of what we call experimental or avant-garde fashion. Starting with knitwear, Schiaparelli’s boundary-pushing designs were heavily influenced by Surrealists. Her collaborators were Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau. She encouraged styles that enabled freedom of movement.

Elsa also excelled at tailoring and was highly influential in the development of structured jackets for women. One of her signatures was the use of industrial zippers as decoration. Amazingly, Schiaparelli had no formal training in the technical skills of pattern making and clothing construction. She approached her craft according to impulse and serendipity.

MADAME GRÈS

Madame Gres raped jersey dress
Madame Gres draped jersey dress

Alix Gres (1903- 1993) was trained as a sculptor. She used live mannequins to create her classically inspired floor-length Grecian inspired gowns. The body gave shape to these dresses, which epitomized elegant simplicity. They were made of two pieces of fabric that were draped, pleated, and cut on the bias.

CLAIRE MCCARDELL

Claire McCardell used humble fabrics for her signature sundresses and swimwear combination
Claire McCardell used humble fabrics for her signature sundresses and swimwear combination

Claire McCardell (1905-1958) is considered to be the inventor of American sportswear. She introduced the idea of separates, the wrap dress (which she called the ‘popover’), easy to wear adult ‘play clothes,’ and popularized the use of Capezio ballet slippers (ballerina flats).

Claire’s functional and straightforward silhouettes and prudent use of humble fabrics like cotton gingham and seersucker, particularly during WWII, helped shape the democratic and casual sensibility that we associate with American ready-to-wear today.

BONNIE CASHIN

Bonnie Cashin used hardware like brass turnlocks on many of her designs

Cashin (1907-2000), along with McCardell, pioneered the concept of American sportswear or ready-to-wear. Among her inspired ideas was referencing ‘humble’ work clothes and using timeless shapes like military uniforms, togas, kimonos, ponchos, tunics and Noh coats. Her signatures were inventive. She use layering, mixing fabrics and textures such as leather with tweed or mohair, and suede with canvas.

Bonnie incorporated industrial-like metal closures instead of traditional buttons and zippers: dog leash clasps, brass turn locks and toggles (inspired by the ones that closed the top of her convertible). Handbags with double entries (when she worked at Coach, 1960 – 1975, she revolutionized the handbag); and “problem-solving” garments with multiple uses.

MARY QUANT

Mary Quant’s Fashion Revolution

Mary Quant was a cornerstone of the ’60s ‘ Youthquake’ movement. She employed new mass production techniques to create a new look for women. The 85-year-old design legend, whose work is currently the subject of an exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. She transformed the fashion world by challenging the dominance of Parisian high fashion., Mary expanded the horizon of what was ‘acceptable’ for women to wear.

Mary was a pioneer in spotting the potential for street style and felt that fashion should be provocative, entertaining, and mirror contemporary society. She is widely credited as the inventor of colorful tights, hot pants, and miniskirts.

VICKY TIEL & MIA FONSSAGRIVES

Vicki Tiel and Mia wearing their mini skirts
Vicky Tiel and Mia wearing their mini skirts

Who was the original creator of the miniskirt? That is up for debate, but you can’t leave two American fashion designers, Vicky Tiel, and Mia Fonssagrives, out of the conversation. Mia made a 14-inch micro mini wrap skirt with ties to wear when she was still a student at Parsons in 1963.

Fellow student Vicky was at the same time making one piece mini dresses that were sold in the Village. They combined as Mia-Vicky and were known as the Ye-Ye Girls. In July 1964, they went to Paris and showed their minis at the Louis Feraud haute couture show.

The show was covered by the French and New York press and Eugenia Sheppard made them famous. By December 1964 they were invited to show their minis on the Johnny Carson Show in New York. The duo was on the haute couture schedule in January and July from 1965-1969.

FYI, Vicky Tiel also designed a wrap dress four years before Diane Von Furstenberg. She later designed the “Pretty Woman” dress that was the longest continuous selling dress at Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus for 30 years. Her red dress was selling for 5 years at Giorgio’s on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Then a Los Angeles based costume designer came in and copied it for the movie. Her HSN lawyers checked it out and decreed that she was the first designer, therefore, she has been deemed the legal designer of the dress. 

REI KAWAKUBO

Rei Kawakubo's Comme des Garcons on view at the Met's Costume Institute
Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garcons on view at the Met’s Costume Institute

Rei Kawakubo founded Comme des Garcons in Tokyo in 1973. She is an establishment rebel and provocateur. The 76-year-old revolutionized Paris fashion by introducing a style of dress that merged Western and Japanese influence. An avowed feminist, Rei took the notion of flattering and obvious sex appeal out of her clothing.

She chose the name “Like the Boys” for her label. Here clothes are not made to “appeal or to attract the opposite sex.” They are geared towards a strong, independent woman who is “not swayed by what her husband thinks.”

Her highly conceptual art to wear, unconventional designs enable us to see (and think about) fashion, beauty, gender, sex, and the world, in a new and different light

DONNA KARAN

Donna Karen's Seven Easy Pieces
Donna Karan’s Seven Easy Pieces

Donna is best known for developing stylish wardrobe staples (elements of uniform dressing) for the everyday career woman. Her Seven Easy Pieces was a landmark simple-dressing system that Karan, who turns 71 in October, debuted in 1985.

It came at a time when the role of women in the workforce was changing. More and more women were rising to the top of the career ladder. Based on a transformative black bodysuit with simple added pieces like a wrap skirt, classic trousers, and strong-shouldered tailored jacket with a defined waist, it offered modern women a streamlined formula to take them from the boardroom to the banquette. It marked a conceptual shift in fashion.

MIUCCIA PRADA

Prada fall 2019 ready-to-wear
Prada fall 2019 ready-to-wear

Over the last four decades, Miuccia has consistently combined highly conceptual ideas with covetable products through her collections. She is always at the forefront of fashion innovation by predicting trends long before her peers (luxury athleisure? Miuccia did it first!). She turned the fashion industry on its head — most notably by introducing nylon as a symbol of luxury.

The 70-year-old design titan first introduced her nylon bags in the mid-80s. She has continued to use this sturdy fabric throughout her collections. Miuccia is an avowed feminist and fashion disruptor. She continually pushes the envelope and subverts traditional ideals of femininity, taste, beauty, and glamour.

NORMA KAMALI

Norma Kamali Fall 2019 ready-to-wear
Norma Kamali Fall 2019 ready-to-wear

Norma is an innovator, inventor, and designer. The ageless 74-year-old is the very definition of modern and has been one step ahead of everyone else since the beginning of her prolific career that began in 1968.

Her brand is based on all aspects of a woman’s life: fitness, health, beauty, style, entrepreneurship. The Sleeping Bag Coat, the High Heeled Sneaker, and the Parachute Collection are all iconic Norma concepts.

In 1980, Norma was the first to present the innovative Sweats Collection. It was the forerunner of casual sportswear, sometimes known as athleisure. Active sportswear is a core part of her brand. Her influential Swimwear is recognized globally as highly directional and has remained an influence in the market for decades.

Norma is also the first designer to create an online store on eBay.

PHOEBE PHILO

 Phoebe Phil's final collection for Celine was for Pre-Fall 2018 ready-to-wear
Phoebe Phil’s final collection for Celine was for Pre-Fall 2018 ready-to-wear

There is no designer as skilled at empowering female self- assurance and tapping into what women want (even before they know they want it) as much as Phoebe. She redefined luxury as creative director of Celine from 2008 to 2018 (she was the creative director of Chloe from 2001 to 2006 before that). Her bold, modern designs which are now collector’s items, are timeless, sophisticated, intelligent, relevant, and prescient.

Phoebe designs are minimal, functional, and pragmatic but always just a bit off-kilter. It makes them that much more interesting and alluring. Her designs are made for confident women who know how they want to look and trust their instincts. Her customer is a woman who dresses to express herself rather than to attract men, and she doesn’t need to rely on obvious status symbols to gain society’s approval.’

At the FIT Couture Council Winter Lunch in March, Roopal Patel, fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue, named Philo as one of the most influential living designers. Even though she is not currently designing a collection (she left Celine in 2018). Now, that is what I call influential! Needless to say, we are all eagerly awaiting her return!

And finally, I have to give a shout out to Maria Grazia Chiuri. She may not have walked on the moon, but in 2016, the avowed feminist became the first woman to lead Christian Dior in its 70 year history.

In her role as overseeing womenswear and haute couture at the LVMH owned company, she effectively took on one of the most powerful roles in the industry.

Marilyn Kirschner
Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

7 Comments
  1. Beautiful article, loved seeing the photos and the stories.
    I remember so much of this.
    But it was Marilyn Vance who designed Pretty Woman, not Ms. Tiel.

  2. Marilyn,
    I wonder why you overlooked crediting Claire MCCardel for the wrap dress decades prior to either
    Vicky Tiel or Diane von Furstenberg?
    sincerely,
    Danielle

  3. I sent a note over to Vicky Tiel who explained that HER red dress had been selling at Giorgio’s on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills for 5 years when a Los Angeles based costume designer came in and copied it for the movie.
    Her HSN lawyers checked it out and decreed that she was the first designer, therefore, she has been deemed the legal designer of the dress.

    She has never sued and has had a long career selling the “Pretty Woman” Dress. She is considering writing a book about this in fact.

  4. This is what I wrote in the paragraph “Claire McCardell (1905- 1958) is considered to be the inventor of American sportswear. She introduced the idea of separates, the wrap dress (which she called the ‘popover’), easy to wear adult ‘play clothes,’ and popularized the use of Capezio ballet slippers (ballerina flats)”.

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