Rediscovering Bonnie Cashin

I can’t remember exactly when I first fell in love with the brilliant, pioneering designer Bonnie Cashin, (ca.1908 – 2000), who was among the “most critically acclaimed and commercially successful designers of the 20th century”, and considered to be the “mother of American sportswear”; but I do remember our meetings at her UN Plaza studio when I was a fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar. By choice, this 5 foot tall dynamo, whose career began as a costume designer, was about as far removed from 7th Avenue as could be. She never trained to be a fashion designer, did not consider herself as such, and actually disdained the term. Above all else, she considered herself to be an artist (she studied painting and drawing and approached fashion as a “studio artist”).

Not only do I remain a huge fan; quite frankly, the older (and wiser) I become, and the more I see, the more appreciative I am of her inherently modern, versatile, simply cut yet highly distinctive, smart and practical designs that perfectly merge form and function. She truly thought outside the box and it’s not lost on me that we just happen to be at a time when fashion is celebrating and embracing each and every one of these things. Everywhere I look, I see bits and pieces of Bonnie, whose work is so highly influential it is now commonplace and, as such, it’s easy to forget their origins.

Her aim had always been “to create simple art forms for living in, to be re-arranged as mood and activity dictates”.  She was obsessed with making unfussy, wearable, comfortable clothes that were easy to get in and out of and move in; perfect for busy globetrotting women like herself. In an article that appeared in The New York Times back in January 2001, “Designed for Living”, the late Amy Spindler observed that Bonnie “photographed her clothes on models dancing, jumping, running, laughing. While so many clothes today seem designed to slow women down, distract them and take them out of the game, Cashin’s invited women to play—to win.”

Handbags in an ad for Coach

Among her inspired ideas: referencing ‘humble’ work clothes and using timeless shapes from the history of the world (military uniforms, togas, kimonos, ponchos, tunics, Noh coats); inventive layering; mixing fabrics and textures (such as leather with tweed or mohair, and suede with canvas); the employment of new and interesting industrial-like metal closures instead of traditional buttons and zippers: dog leash clasps, brass turnlocks 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.

Bonnie Cashin for Sills butterscotch plaid mohair
wool dog leash skirt 1960’s

Thus, the funnel necked sweaters whose necklines doubled as a hood, and ball-skirts fashioned from yards of weightless mohair made all the more innovative with the use of a dog-leash clasp which enabled the wearer to instantly change the length. This was inspired by “Cashin’s own frustration at tripping over her skirts when hosting a party and trying to navigate with a martini in hand”.

Vintage red leather jacket with attached  handbag

Then there were the coats with built in coin purses and “pocketbook” pockets with latch closures. Her use of pockets, a signature, were often so pronounced (they were made for carrying books around), they obliterated the need for carrying a handbag, freeing your arms and keeping you unencumbered: the essence of modern. Sometimes the pockets were placed in back as well as the front. Just a note, I wouldn’t put my valuables there if I was planning to go on a crowded New York subway (lol). But I suppose the Oakland born designer never considered the threat of pickpockets, which one could blame on her cheerful optimism and preternaturally sunny California disposition.

Marilyn wearing Bonnie Cashin in Bill Cunningham’s On  the Street column,
December 11, 2011

As for her fabulous coats, they look as good today as they did some 50, 60 years ago (if not better) and they are highly collectible (they can be found on vintage websites, at vintage shops, and of course, eBay and 1stdibs). I am fortunate to own 7, including a duo in mustard and olive leather and raccoon that are short and trapeze shaped and hooded. They are not only durable and the warmest coats I own, they never fail to elicit compliments from complete strangers whenever I wear them. I have been photographed in both, several times, by Bill Cunningham for his ‘On the Street Column’.

Though perhaps the coat that is most ‘Bonnie’, is the nubby wool, short, full checked coat in shades of orange, teal, red, purple, ivory, which is piped in ivory leather and has two huge pockets (she loved checks, Scottish plaids, and vibrant colors used in unorthodox combinations). FYI, the same exact coat is currently for sale on 1stdibs. (Buy now)

It’s that modern, timeless element, and the enduring, high-quality of her designs (everything was made in small amounts as opposed to being mass produced), that unites many of us fellow Cashin fans. We ‘get’ it and we ‘get’ Bonnie’s artistic, madcap, somewhat boho, freewheeling, rule breaking aesthetic. I call it the “Cult of Cashin”; “Birds of a feather flock together”. It’s what brought Dr. Stephanie Lake, the foremost scholar on Bonnie Cashin, and me together.

In September 2010, I received an email from Dr. Lake after she saw a picture of me wearing my Bonnie Cashin tan thick canvas and leather coat during New York Fashion Week. She told me about her very special personal and professional relationship with the iconic designer and explained that she is the caretaker of the Bonnie Cashin archives (, the most comprehensive in the world. She also told me that she curated the first major Cashin retrospective (it was at the Museum at FIT and opened 7 months after her passing in 2000).

Click here to purchase book on

Fast forward to March 2016. We are now back in touch because the publication date of her monograph “Bonnie Cashin: Chic Is Where You Find It” is April 12th. The hardcover 290 page tome, published by Rizzoli, is so named because that was the designer’s favorite phrase (she always found inspiration in everyday objects). The forward, “The 10 Commandments of Cashinism”, is written by Jonathan Adler, who admits to worshipping at the “alter of Bonnie Cashin”. It doesn’t surprise me in the least bit, that this potter, designer, author and design aficionado (and Simon Doonan’s husband), is a self-professed “Cashin addict”.

On April 13th, Dr. Lake will at Rizzoli (located at 1133 Broadway at 26th Street) for a book signing that will take place from 6 to 8 PM and, in celebration, the store windows will feature 3 ensembles from her archives. We have conversed though a number of phone conversations and emails, and she has been a wealth of information. She is so articulate and animated; you could literally feel the love, admiration, respect, and awe she feels about her subject. “There is longevity to her designs…the geometry, the color, the texture, the utilitarian elements”. “She was so stubborn and completely transfixed by her own vision – she was always ready to walk away and be a painter”. She enthused that in addition to keeping her archives completely intact, Bonnie was “brilliant and gorgeous”. Of course, I would like to point out that the same can be said about this brilliant and gorgeous woman who can also boast that she is only the fifth person in the world to hold a PhD in decorative arts, design history, and material culture. Her curatorial work has taken her to Tokyo, London, Paris, and Istanbul, but she now resides in Minneapolis with her husband and young daughter.

Oh, did I mention that she is very much involved in philanthropic work and has her own design collection of otherworldly, one-of-a-kind luxury jewelry (, which incorporates different centuries and design elements (Hollywood Regency, mid-century, 70s-era Fleetwood Mac, and glam rock).

Leather multi pocketed coat
Photo: Charles Lee

She told me that she was first introduced to Bonnie Cashin’s designs in 1997 while working as a research consultant at Sotheby’s and, when she saw the designer’s turquoise leather “paperback” pocket coat meant for toting books, it was love at first sight. The coat was subsequently given to her by Tiffany Dubin and Dr. Lake said she always receives compliments when she wears it. It’s easy to see why. Soon after, she met Bonnie (she was in her early 20’s and Bonnie was in her 80’s, though she thought the designer was at least a decade younger because of her high energy level and unbridled enthusiasm for life). They became so close the designer referred to her as her “older sister” and they saw each other every week or so until her passing.

Dr. Stephanie Lake’s Bonnie Cashin Archives
(Photo by husband)

“We had lunch plans the day she went into the hospital with chest pains. I did not get to say goodbye. I still have my old answering machine tape with her voice on it.   She never had a computer so it was all phone calls, lunches, and visits to her apartments at the UN. I would dig through her archive for days at a time, and she would pop in with a plate of cookies and see what I had discovered”. With her unrestricted access to her archives, which were entrusted to her, she was able to follow through on her promise and dream of penning a book about Bonnie (and Rizzoli was always at the top of her list as publisher). Even though Bonnie was an iconic, highly influential, highly celebrated, award winning American designer (she won every fashion award, multiple times) who is considered to be one of the most significant pioneers of ready-to-wear and sportswear, and whose work is constantly being referenced, Stephanie has always felt that she has nonetheless been highly underrated and has always “campaigned for Bonnie’s significance”.

 One of Bonnie Cashin’s sketches

She refers to the book, (a labor of love filled with approximately 350 images which were edited down from over 650) as “A visual pleasure” quickly adding, “But then of course, there was an embarrassment of riches to begin with”. Eye candy it is. Everything about the book is visually arresting, highly personal, and informative, down to Bonnie’s own dictums. Among them: “All the things that are ‘in’ and ‘out’ are ridiculous. They’re ‘in’ if YOU like them”. And,“Fashion should be pure enjoyment. Our closets are shockingly overstuffed. One does not need clothing for practical reasons. One only needs new clothing to feel wonderful in”. And then there are her fabulous sketches which are scribbled with her own marvelous notes and bursting with exuberant joyfulness.

Among the fashion notables who are quoted is Bill Cunningham, who knows a thing or two about fashion, and among other things, happens to be the ultimate fashion historian. He raved after attending Bonnie’s Living Sketchbook show in December, 1962, and said he felt as though he had been “shot into the 21st Century” with models that were “just too sexy for words!” “This is the comfortable future!” he exclaimed, and added, “The French should see Bonnie’s clothes- they really would rejuvenate Chanel.”.” He also suggested that there should be a “national monument in her honor”.

It’s not “a typical fashion history book” the author points out. ” It’s more about “attitude and approach. “The approach to design is what was important to Bonnie. Not the ‘what’ but ‘why’.” Even though the book is “scholarly”, Dr. Lake considered the designer’s “life as a whole”, so she hopes that “people will feel as though they are walking into Bonnie’s life” when they read it. Mission Accomplished! In addition to be completely transfixed and inspired, Bonnie truly came alive, and I found myself wishing that Bonnie was still with us and she could share our thoughts on fashion.

Dr. Lake also answered four questions I had.

1: How did the iconic brass turnlock closures first come about?

Crescendoe-Superb leather gloves  1972-1974

“The turnlock was inspired by the toggle closures that secured the top of her convertible roadster that she drove in the 1940s. In 1964, she began using it on all of her designs, and it remained her signature until her retirement. They were mass manufactured (never custom-made) and in the 1970s a model told the press that Bonnie was still sourcing them from automobile manufacturers. They appear on her designs for more than 10 firms from 1964 until 1985, and they are still mass-manufactured, and readily available, today”.

“Bonnie loved all types of industrial hardware. I have a box of samples that she collected—the turnlocks, tent zippers, dog leash clasps, some from firefighter’s uniforms, others inspired by old-fashioned appliance handles. She took credit for introducing the term hardware to high fashion, and was pioneering in her refusal to use anything conventional (fussy, delicate, or difficult) as a closure”.

2: What about her love of boots?

 A booted look from the 70’s

“Knee-high boots were her preference; she considered “the booted look” one of her great contributions to 20th-C fashion, first showing it in Harper’s Bazaar in 1944, and in the early 1960s she designed a few. A description for a 1963 coat reads “Boots should go with it and pants can.”She did wear high heels in the 1950s, but thereafter usually very low heels and considered footwear such a nuisance that she once wrote “The problem with dresses is feet!”

3: To belt or not to belt?

Marilyn in Bonnie Cashin coat taking during
NYFW September

When I sheepishly admitted that I tend to belt my Cashin coats (they generally feature tent like, trapeze shapes, and I pull them in to fit my small frame), she exclaimed, “Oh, Bonnie would love that!” Of course, they are so beautifully made and fabulously cut, that they look as good worn loose and unbelted as well.

4: Why the hoods and head coverings?

Bonnie Cashin in Scholars Hat 1957

“She collected hats from around the world and, as a globetrotter; she thought it was important to be able to tuck your hair away after a long train ride or boat crossing. She attached hoods to everything—her ponchos, jackets, cashmere sweaters, jersey dresses. The Madonna hoods and her cashmere funnel necks were staple designs, meant to provide an additional layer to the head when needed (she layered these attached hoods under hats). Hoods were always fully integrated, with shapes carefully considered whether they were pulled up or flung back, often outlined in varying widths of leather banding to create a certain silhouette.”

“She loved any head covering. She claimed to be able to think more clearly with something on her head”.

Hmmm, think more clearly? I’ll have to give that one a try!

– 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.

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