Source: LIFE Magazine, 8 May 1944
Norman Norell (1900-1972) was born Norman Levinson in 1900 in Noblesville, Indiana. After a childhood marked by frequent illness and a lack of enthusiasm for formal education – he preferred attending the theater and sketching costumes – he moved to Brooklyn to attend Pratt Institute, where he adopted the professional name Norell. Following graduation, he designed costumes for silent film stars and for Broadway.
Hildegarde performing in a Traina-Norell skirt (Object ID #1974.05)
Source: Mount Mary University Archives
In 1928 he began working for Hattie Carnegie, a woman he later credited with teaching him everything he knew. Their partnership ended contentiously in 1941, at which point Norell and Anthony Traina formed the Traina-Norell design house. The Traina-Norell label became very successful, with Norell’s designs matching the quality expected of Parisian labels. This was especially important during World War II, when the American fashion industry no longer has access to French designs. Norell’s creations such as the chemise dress emphasized style while working within wartime fabric restrictions.
After Traina retired in 1960, Norell bought the design house, renamed it Norman Norell Inc., and continued to find success with his designs. In 1965 he helped found and served as the first president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and he continued teaching at Parsons School for Design as he had since 1943.
Norell became known as the “dean of the fashion industry” because of his influence on and mentorship of younger designers, including Florence Eiseman, Frank Olive, Bill Blass, and others. Eiseman, known as the “Norman Norell of children’s clothes,” frequently wore Norell outfits (she donated several pieces from her personal wardrobe to Mount Mary University), and Olive credited Norell with encouraging him to try designing hats.
A Norman Norell
(Object ID #1990.257)
Source: Mount Mary University
Digital Fashion Archive
Norell died in 1972, shortly after the Metropolitan Museum of Art held a special exhibit showcasing fifty years of his designs. Throughout his career, some of his most significant designs included sequined evening gowns known as “mermaid dresses” and wool culotte suits. His emphasis on simple necklines was an important contribution to fashion, and his garments were known for their high-quality workmanship and long-lasting appeal.
Following Norell's death, fashion designer Gustave Tassell took over the fashion house. He remained there until the firm closed four years later. As a young man doing window displays for Hattie Carnegie, Tassell had been exposed to Norell's designs and was inspired to follow in his footsteps. Tassell was a natural fit to take over Norell's business, as the two were friends and shared a sure sense of proportion, an insistence on simplicity of design, and refined detail.
To find a book on Norman Norell at Haggerty Library, click here.
The garments below are divided into three sections, "Norman Norell designs for Traina-Norell fashion house," "Norman Norell designs for Norman Norell fashion house," and "Gustave Tassell designs for Norman Norell fashion house."
Norman Norell designs for Traina-Norell fashion house
Norman Norell designs for Norman Norell fashion house
Gustave Tassell designs for Norman Norell fashion house