Bonnie Cashin (ca. 1908 – 2000) is considered one of the pioneering designers of American sportswear. Bonnie’s significant influence is omnipresent, yet she is unknown to an entire generation. Cashin was once referred to by i-d.vice.com contributor Jeremy Lewis as “The most copied designer you’ve never heard of.” The upcoming exhibition at the Met’s Costume Institute will undoubtedly change that.
When “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” opens in September, a blanket coat designed by Bonnie Cashin will be paired with a Pendleton-inspired blanket coat by Andre Walker in the “porch.” Back in April, Andrew Bolton explained to Vogue that the Anna Wintour Costume Center will be transformed into an imaginary house. Each room will present a particular emotive quality. The porch represents “warmth.” It makes perfect sense. As Gloria Vanderbilt once said, “Bonnie’s clothes have a loving quality. They wrap their arms around you.”
Indeed, Bonnie is (yet again) everywhere. When the announcement came last Monday that after a three-year break, Phoebe Philo will be returning with her own eponymous label backed by LVMH, the world’s largest multinational corporation, images of Philo’s past Celine collections went viral. The Costume Institute posted a note of congratulations along with the picture of a plaid dress and coat ensemble from the Celine Fall 2013 Ready-to-Wear collection on Instagram. It is hard not to notice the Cashin references.
“When Phoebe Philo debuted her new vision for Celine in 2009, what went unsaid in the reviews and ensuing coverage was that the collection, in its utilitarian chic and leather-trimmed canvas, echoed the work of another designer…Bonnie Cashin”: Jeremy Lewis, i-d-vice.com contributor,
In her article, “Phoebe Philo Is Returning to Fashion With Her Own Brand,” July 12, 2021, Vanessa Friedman referred to Philo as “the patron saint of dressing for the female gaze.” The same is said about Bonnie, a fiercely independent feminist. In fact, there are many similarities in their work and aesthetics. Jeremy Lewis, an ardent Cashin supporter, connected the dots between Philo and Cashin years ago.
There were traces of Bonnie in the Christian Dior Haute Couture Fall 2021 collection in Paris this month. Cashin’s strong influence is apparent in Marc Jacobs’ Fall 2021 Ready-to-Wear collection with its enveloping sense of protection, comfort, and functionality. In fact, the title of my show review, “Marc’s Practical Magic,” was a reference to Cashin, who described herself as a “Practical Dreamer.” “Practical Dreamer” was also the name of an exhibition at The Museum at FIT that ran from September 2000 – 2001 January.
The endless similarities are not lost on Dr. Stephanie Lake, the foremost Bonnie Cashin scholar in the world. She is pleased to see (and hardly surprised to find) elements of Cashin in the Marc Jacobs show. After all, Bonnie’s DNA is evident throughout the history of American sportswear. “The Cashin Effect is among fashion’s oldest phenomena,” notes Dr. Lake. “It started in the middle of the twentieth century and never stopped. It has traveled around the world, from the couture to mass manufacture and back again”.
Dr. Lake has made it her mission to ensure Bonnie gets her due credit. Dr. Lake is heir to and owner of Bonnie Cashin’s personal archive, encompassing garments and accessories from the 1920s to the 1980s. Dr. Lake is only the 5th person to hold a Ph.D. in Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture. She has the credentials and the background to illustrate how influential and relevant Bonnie’s work continues to be,
Dr. Lake launched CashinCopy (@cashincopy) in 2017 as a way to honor Bonnie’s unique legacy and trace her influence in today’s world. It was right after Raf Simons, in his second collection for Calvin Klein, appropriated her 1970’s orange cape with big zippers line for line. Diet Prada was all over it, and it became a big thing.
Then, JW Anderson did it for fall 2019 with a Bonnie Cashin cape from 1949. And it wasn’t the first time. For spring 2018, he showed a jersey and leather balloon sleeve dress from the mid-’70s that Dr. Lake wore and it still hangs in her closet. It was in his collection in 5 iterations. Dr. Lake told me that after WWD reached out, Jonathan said backstage that he has always been inspired by postmodern design and Bonnie Cashin. When it happened with Raf at Calvin Klein, there was no comment.
“Celebrating Bonnie, not calling out others, is my interest. There is a huge distinction between pointing out and calling out, and riffing on, versus ripping off. My focus is always on the former”- Dr. Stephanie Lake.
“It is practically every designer’s fate to find themselves on the Cashin fashion family tree at some point,” observes Dr. Lake. The world is clad in Cashin concepts (to borrow a line from a Guardian article years ago). Some designers look at a Cashin design and casually copy it in another color without acknowledging the apparent source.
Another crowd proudly shares their inspiration (intellectual or aesthetic) and reverence for her. Other designers whose work echoes Bonnie never realize that they follow in her footsteps and have no idea that she originated the original concept a lifetime ago. “I love connecting these dots. Jaws always drop,” proclaims Dr. Lake.