FASHION FLASHBACK: THE INCREDIBLE NORMAN NORELL                                                      Norman Norell 1900-1972

Suzy Parker Life Magazine cover 1952 photo Milton Green

This stunning photo of Suzy Parker, in a Norman Norell mermaid gown, was one of the reasons I wanted to get into the fashion business.  I thought the models of the late ’40’s and ’50’s and the clothes in ads and editorials were so glamorous and breathtaking, that I decided it was the place for me.  And guess what I worked with the gentleman who created this illusion, Norman Norell!  Who knew….

Norman Norell was considered one of the top American designers, I would say top International designers, when I began at Saks Fifth Avenue, Chicago and I had the extreme honor of presenting his annual fashion shows in the Grand Ballroom of the Chicago Hilton on South Michigan Avenue (I have done more shows at the Hilton than any other venue) for the American Cancer Society Women’s Board, an organization I worked with for many years and featured the best of the best of American designers. Mr. Norell didn’t do many formal shows outside of New York, but when we asked him to come to Chicago he readily agreed, you see he had cancer himself so the cause was one he strongly believed in.

The Norell shows were unique in that Mr. Norell brought his four models with him, Claudia, Doreen, Clare and Yvonne and we chose four local models and did their hair and make-up in exactly the same manner.  You couldn’t tell which were the New York models or the Chicago models.  At the time, the Norell look was a slick “garcon” haircut, very severe yet stunning and perfect for his clothing.  The make-up was extremely dramatic with smoky eye and red lip (a la the Van Dongan portrait of the Marchesa Luisa Casati, if you don’t know about her, please educate yourself via books* and, of course, the internet!  An amazing character!)  In addition, there was no commentary, we did commentary with all shows, and to only use 8 models, which was the norm then, with just music was unusual.  Believe me, these garments didn’t need descriptions, they spoke perfectly on their own.  In retrospect, it added to the elegance and salon feel of the shows and the models walked the runway very slowly so the audience could see the details of the clothes.

Mr. Norell with his models in iconic Life Magazine 1960 photo by Milton Green

Marchesa Luisa Casati by Kees Van Dongan seen in the background of the photo above

Cover of Life Magazine 1960

I can not tell you how much I coveted a Norell Mermaid gown…talk about dreaming the impossible dream…I was making $37.50 take home pay per week and if I recall correctly the gowns, at that time, were around $3500.00!  You do the math.  They were, all hand beaded and magnificent and strangely enough very light weight.

Bad photo but you get the idea!

At one of the fashion shows he had silk scarves to go with some of the outfits, and as the show was in progress he decided on the spur of the moment to have the models toss them into the audience, obviously creating quite a frenzy, what fun and totally unexpected!  I wonder who still has one of those scarves.  At one point in time, Revlon introduced a Norell fragrance, the first to be named for an American designer. Saks, of course, gave all the guests a bottle as their gift. The fragrance was relaunched a couple of years ago at Neiman Marcus. Mr. Norell was always very gracious to all the staff and worked with the clientele perfectly…advising them on selections to add to their vast Norell wardrobes.  Many of these garments are now housed at the Chicago History Museum in the Costume Collection.

Love this outfit and typically Norell from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Collection

One of the perks of working with leading designers is learning their techniques and tricks, one of the many pointers I picked up from Mr. Norell was how to tie a bow, you can see one in the above image, he loved to do huge bows, this one on an evening piece, don’t you love it!.  But he also did bows on dresses and blouses worn with his open-collared jackets and coats. There wasn’t anything superficial about the Norell look it was all about perfect tailoring, perfect construction, perfect fabrics and perfect beading always allowing the wearer to be the focal point of the garment. It wasn’t Couture but each garment was completely made by one person not passed from seamstress to seamstress.

What a lucky person I was to have started with the likes of Norman Norell, Bonnie Cashin, Anne Fogerty, Anne Klein, Emilio Pucci and, of course, Sophie Gimbel all of whom you will learn more about in upcoming posts along with the many, many other designers and fashion personalities I have had the joy of working with over the years.

The Norman Norell plaque on the Fashion Walk of Fame in New York

The catalog from the Norman Norell Exhibition immediately following his death

Illustration by Michael Vollbracht

*Infinite Variety:  The Life and Legend of the Marchesa Casati available from or  I’m sure can be ordered from your favorite Independent Bookseller

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