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Date: American, 1900-1972
Biography: New School University Library: Norman Norell (1900-72) was a central figure in the development of the American fashion industry from the 1940s through the early 1970s. His simple but stylish clothing was lauded for its glamour, timelessness, and high-quality construction. Considered the first American fashion designer to compete successfully with French couturiers, Norell’s obituary appeared on the front page of the New York Times (October 26, 1972) with the headline: “Made 7th Ave. the Rival of Paris." The designer’s talent was recognized in 1943 when he received the first Coty American Fashion Critics Award ever presented. He was to be awarded four more such awards, and in 1956, he was inducted into the Coty Hall of Fame. Norell was known for his evening shirtwaists, sequined “mermaid dresses,” sailor-inspired clothing, colorful outfits featuring buttons and large pockets, and simple wool dresses with high necklines. He was also fond of reviving and adapting earlier styles. In 1942, for example, he brought back the chemise dress of the twenties. His 1946 collection, which included longer skirts and nipped waists, foresaw Christian Dior’s New Look of the following year. Norell had a long, illustrious affiliation with Parsons. He was a critic at the school, teaching in 1943-44 and then from 1954 to 1972. In 1956, Parsons honored him with its Medal for Distinguished Achievement. Norell was also a member of the school’s Advisory Board, 1958-62, and Board of Trustees, 1962-72. Born Norman Levinson, Norell changed his surname while studying fashion design at the Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn, from 1920 to 1922. He explained the name change by stating, “‘Nor’ for ‘Norman,’ ‘l’ for ‘Levinson,’ with another ‘l’ added for looks.” After graduating, Norell was hired as a costume designer for the Astoria Studio of Paramount Pictures in Long Island. There he created outfits for such films as A Sainted Devil starring Rudolph Valentino. In 1923, Norell moved on to work for the Brooks Costume Company, where he produced costumes for both the Ziegfeld Follies and the Greenwich Village Follies. Norell designed an upscale line of sportswear for the dress house of Charles Armour beginning in 1924. He then became head designer for Hattie Carnegie in 1928. The company’s wholesale operation was Norell’s primary responsibility, but he also did custom work for such clients as Joan Crawford, Pola Negri, and Gertrude Lawrence. In 1941, Anthony Traina, a manufacturer of high-end clothing for mature women, hired Norell, and the pair established the Traina-Norell label. From the first, the firm was celebrated for constructing ready-to-wear clothes which were on par with French couture. With America cut off from French fashion due to World War II, Traina-Norell filled the gap and quickly rose to prominence. After Traina’s death in 1960, Norell bought out the firm and renamed it “Norman Norell.” Besides designing for his company, he created clothes for such motion pictures as That Touch of Mink (1962) and Klute (1971). In 1968, he marketed the Norell perfume, the first Revlon fragrance named after a designer. When Norell passed away in 1972, Gustave Tassell took over direction of the clothing line. The company ultimately folded in 1977. The Norman Norell Papers (7.5 cubic feet), held by the Kellen Archives Center, consist of sketches, photographs, clippings, awards, and scrapbooks. The Norell sketches in the Papers all date to the 1960s and early 1970s. The entire set has been included in the Fashion Design History Collection.