Thursday, April 16, 2009

Bonnie Cashin, Genius

Liz and I were at an estate sale, in the basement, rummaging through two racks of dresses, suits, and coats. Liz, with her impeccable eye, tossed item after item over her arm. "Bonnie Cashin!" she said in an excited whisper. "There's tons of it!"

The elderly Italian woman who had owned the house had exquisite taste and a generous clothing budget. And she had kept every gorgeous outfit she bought, including a cache of classic Bonnie Cashin designs that would make the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Curator weep with joy.

Bonnie Cashin, who would have been 100 years old were she alive, revolutionized American fashion. Cashin started her career designing costumes for the Roxyettes at New York City's Roxy Theater when she was only 25 years old. She did a little costume design in Hollywood, too--that's her work in The King and I, for example--and did unattributed designs for Hermes and others.

But today she's mostly known for two accomplishments: her design with the Sills company, and taking Coach from an antiquated saddle company to a national name in women's leather accessories.

With Sills, Cashin took fabrics like mohair, jersey, and wool, fabrics that had never got the respect they deserved, and turned them into luxurious coats, suits, ponchos, and dresses. She valued comfort and freedom of movement, so she patterned her designs after Chinese clothing. Many of her coats had kimono sleeves and loose bodies so that they could be layered with other clothing. (In fact, some say she introduced the concept of layering to Americans.) She favored hardware-style closures--closures that she brought to Coach and that, to this day, allow you to i.d. a Coach bag from down the block. Like Claire McCardell, she imbued everyday clothing with a style that came to define American elegance.

Cashin loved working with leather, and her signature pieces often include leather ties or piping. So, her years at Coach were a natural. When Cashin was hired at Coach, Coach was known for making saddles and bridles. Cashin took advantage of Coach's expertise with saddle leather and designed practical but stylish handbags that have since become hugely sought after. Coach is now re-issuing some of her designs, although "cutey-pied" up and at ridiculously high prices.

At the estate sale, Liz snagged several Bonnie Cashin mohair and wool coats and dress/coat combos that somehow manage to look vintage and yet timeless. They are taupe, ruby red, cocoa brown, ivory, and more. They are indubitably American, and yet they are so elegant that they would kick butt in Paris. Even better, they're a reasonable size 8 or 10. When Liz went into the back basement room at the estate sale and came out with some Bonnie Cashin purses, I vowed I'd wrassle her to the ground if I had to for the red Cashin Carry tote, and it's by my side right now. (No wrassling necessary.) I think Liz kept the lipstick pink one. If you're lucky, you can still buy one tote left, in a rich brown-black.

I'm still dreaming about that estate sale. If you like fashion, for God's sake don't miss out on the Cashins!


  1. Fantastic! Please look at the Bonnie Cashin Foundation website:

    Bonnie was my "big sister" and I love hearing of others who respect and admire her work.

    Stephanie Lake, PhD
    Creative Director
    The Bonnie Cashin Foundation

  2. Hurray! I'll rush to the website right away! We're big Cashin fans at the Xtabay and are thrilled to have you comment on the blog. To me, she truly encapsulates elegant, American style.

  3. What?! You just experienced my fantasy estate sale! From another big Cashin fan.