In Forgotten Fashion: An Illustrated Faux History Of Outrageous Trends And Their Untimely Demise, Kate Hahn plays fashion historian, plumbing the “Beatrice P. Fruit Archives” at the “College of the Willows” for such once-celebrated fashion fads as Ice Beading and the Four O’Clock Dress. It’s deadpan social satire in a tone Kate describes as “glamorous dark humor...inspired by things like Edward Gorey and the Limony Snicket series." In each of the supposedly historic episodes, everything goes wonderfully until some sort of “regrettable incident or unlucky moment” ends the fun.
Here, with illustrations by Andraé Gonzalo of Project Runway fame, is a sample chapter. Kate and Andraé will be signing copies of the book at our Downtown Fashion Walk party on Thursday evening (details here), 201 W. 5th Street at Spring in Downtown L.A. [VP]
Frigidaire Formals, 1950
Sometimes, it all begins with a muse.
When Gaston Darchez first laid eyes on Kaitlyn Anderson, she was removing a silver tray of Jell-O parfaits from a sparkling new 1950 Frigidaire Imperial refrigerator. Kaitlyn was six feet tall, with flame red hair and skin so white that it had been alternately described by her series of minor poet boyfriends as “milky,” “snowy,” “ghostly,” or by the less metaphorically inclined, “pale.” Her long spine gave her a slightly concave posture, which had once led her pediatrician to predict a lifetime of expensive medical treatments. But by the time 21 year-old Kaitlyn crossed Darchez’s line of vision, her backbone had become her fortune.
Kaitlyn was one of the few people in the world with the innate ability to hold her torso in a nearly perpetual C-curve, which at the time was considered the ultimate posture of a high-fashion model. She had been discovered by an art director, and embarked on a very successful career posing for illustrated magazine advertisements. It was in this capacity that Darchez, an expatriate French former fashion designer, first saw her. He had been hired to draw the ad for the 1950 Frigidaire Imperial. Kaitlyn had been contracted to be part of the picture. Her elegant form, swathed in a sky blue ball gown and curved over the tray of gelatin treats, suggested that the icy confines of the refrigerator emitted breezes that could transform anyone’s life into a glamorous one, and give pedigree to even the most pedestrian desserts.
For Darchez, the scene was simply a series of colors and shapes to be put on paper, until the moment Kaitlyn unwound from her C-curve, and stood up straight. “She dominated the entire room," he wrote. “And I knew what I had to do to become a fashion designer again: go big.” The Frenchman had worked in all the great Parisian fashion ateliers, but was never chosen as an assistant, and so had come to the US, bitter and angry, promising to abandon couture and “become an illustrator of the hulking monstrous machines and the lazy and wasteful women who use them.” But in truth he was haunted by the popularity of Christian Dior’s New Look of 1947 and longed to create a style that would have the same meteoric impact on fashion.
At the sight of Kaitlyn beside the modern ice box, he decided “hope lies in hugeness.” The drawing studio had the same high ceilings as the abodes of the Parisian elite – Darchez’s desired customers. He knew that all of these privileged women harbored the same secret wish: to enter the elaborate parties held in these cavernous rooms in gowns so stunning they would make all the other guests blend into the parquet floors. To become their next design darling, Darchez would have to make dresses that would dominate these spaces like no one before him: evening gowns on a gargantuan scale. “Double doors will become triples to accommodate their entrances, and grand staircases will look like matchstick ladders beside them,” he wrote. “I will transform every woman into Kaitlyn.”
He convinced her to sign a contract to pose for sketches in the studio after hours. During their sessions, he gave her playful nicknames: “The Glacier,” “The Iceberg,” “Mon petit Mont Blanc,” all of which he wrote in a brushy stroke beside his drawings of her. It is from Darchez’s sketchbook that we know much about the development of the dresses, which the designer called Frigidaire Formals.
Like Kaitlyn and the appliances, the collection was white in color and grand in scale. The foundation of each gown was a fitted bodice that emphasized a woman’s hourglass silhouette. This was enhanced by design features that extended the garment’s volume in all directions: a ball-gown skirt with a twenty-foot circumference, translucent chiffon “poet” sleeves with nearly as much yardage as a parachute, stand-up raw silk collars that reached above the ears, satin trains so long they practically required a caboose.
In the drawings, Kaitlyn stands not in her popular C-curve, but regally upright, a pose surely requested by Darchez to enhance the large scale of the gowns. She is particularly fetching in earlier designs such as “La Glacière” (the Ice Box), a dress and cape combination that reveals the impact of appliances on Darchez’s work. The floor-length porcine cape clasps at the neck with a silver lever modeled after a Frigidaire door handle. Beneath it is a ball gown, the warm ivory moiré silk glowing like the light from inside a refrigerator. Kaitlyn smiles slyly at the artist, one hand touched to the cape’s upturned collar.
But the gigantic scale of the gowns relied on more than generous swaths of fabric modeled by a statuesque goddess. For all the drawing and fitting sessions, “The Iceberg” wore five-inch pumps. Sketches show that Darchez began with three-inch heels and modified them to increase the height. He gave much thought to the engineering, reinforcing the shoes with a steel shank so they would not snap and send his muse tumbling. One might assume that this footwear was the cause of the pinched look that began to appear on Kaitlyn’s face one-third of the way through the sketchbook. But one would be wrong.
After many weeks of the boardlike posture, Kaitlyn was having difficulty forming her trademark C-curve when she posed for the appliance illustrations, which were her main source of income. Art directors complained. One can find fewer representations of her russet-haired presence in magazine advertisements from this period, and it can be assumed Kaitlyn was probably suffering financially as a result. But she was trapped in her contract with Darchez, and in his dresses, which just got bigger and bigger. In the sketch for “Le Gaz,” which drew its name and shape from the white-hot flame flickering from gas stove burners, her face is nearly lost amid a flurry of ostrich feathers built up around her as if she is the center of a blaze. Even in Darchez’s stylized hand, one notices her visage sports a scowl, and her pale skin is slightly pink.
The final straw was “La Lave,” a dress-within-a dress clearly inspired by the era’s top-loading dishwashers, in which cups and plates were placed in a cylindrical wire basket and submerged in a tube beneath the kitchen counter. The innermost gown was a tightly fitted sheath, made of fabric Darchez designed, white silk embroidered in silver thread that formed an abstract pattern suggesting the wire cage. Over this was a layer of suds-inspired translucent chiffon. This was topped by a porcelain white evening coat in a tubular shape, which appeared to transform Kaitlyn into a Doric column.
Around the figure of Kaitlyn, Darchez has limned the Parthenon, complete with the row of massive white columns lining its façade. Kaitlyn, in the dress, becomes one of them. Her face atop it is like that of an angry goddess.
It is the last dress in the portfolio of the Frigidaire Formals collection. Tucked behind it is half of a torn contract – the one Darchez had with Kaitlyn. It is obvious the designer could not go on without his muse. If his dresses were ever actually produced, there is no record of them. His Frigidaire Formals drifted into oblivion, as did he.
But it was not his mammoth and towering creations that could have made his fortune, it was what lay beneath them: his carefully engineered footwear. In 1952, the term “stiletto” was coined to describe the high-heeled shoe with the spiky heel bolstered by a metal shank. Its popularity was attributed mainly to Roger Vivier, who worked for the designer Darchez had so envied: Christian Dior.
If you couldn’t come to the party, you can still get a signed copy of the book for $9.95 plus shipping. Order it here no later than Labor Day, September 7.