The bad guys of 1970s fashion were as practiced at slaughtering reputations with a few casual sentences as any gunslinger armed with a pistol in a Main Street showdown. For instance, here are some pearls of questionable wisdom from John Fairchild, the editor-in-chief and publisher of fashion trade bible Women’s Wear Daily for almost forty years from 1960. In his opinion, “Most women look awful in pants and should never wear them unless the pants are very well cut and the ladies are very well cut.” At the risk of making any pants-wearing ladies who are reading this article even angrier, I’ll share another of Fairchild’s [un]pleasantries: “It always astounds me that women want to throw themselves in front of a camera. If I were going to a party, I wouldn’t want my wife to be photographed. A beautiful woman is something to be guarded like a flower and not publicly displayed to everybody.”
So, let’s imagine you’re a female fashion designer in Fairchild’s heyday, the 1970s, and you’re trying to promote your latest collection using photographs of models wearing the pants you’ve designed. The one publication the entire fashion trade looks to is Women’s Wear Daily, so, naturally, you’d try to seek coverage in its pages. But Fairchild is the man in charge and he hates pants, he hates photographs of women and, it seems, he hates women themselves. And he let them know it.
As Meryl Gordon writes in Vanity Fair, “Fairchild played favorites and wreaked vengeance on those who … displeased him in some way. The typical punishment was banishment from the pages of the newspaper, which could have a ripple effect on a designer’s career.”
Have you heard of Pauline Trigère? I hope some of you have—that Fairchild’s campaign against her wasn’t one hundred percent successful. She was one of the designers he banned from being mentioned by of his journalists in Women’s Wear Daily, for reasons unspecified. But I’m guessing that a larger proportion of readers will be more familiar with the names Bill Blass, Halston, Oscar de la Renta, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren—the men of 1960s-1980s fashion. As Diane von Furstenberg said, Fairchild “made people and destroyed people,” and in an industry already ruled by men, the women were the ones who suffered.
Even now, the fashion industry has a gender problem. From the outside, it seems to be a female industry. Aren’t women the ones obsessed with shopping and clothes? But if it truly is a female industry, then why do only fourteen percent of major fashion brands have a female executive in charge? Why do only five percent of Fortune 500 clothing companies have female CEOs? There’s no way to trace a direct line back from this inequality to the almost forty years of Fairchild’s stewardship of the fashion industry’s bible, but I think it’s safe to say it wouldn’t have helped.
Fairchild wasn’t the only bad guy, though. Halston’s behavior at the 1973 fashion event the Battle of Versailles was appalling. I write about both about John Fairchild and the Versailles extravaganza in my new novel, The Disappearance of Astrid Bricard, but if you’re unfamiliar with the contest, it pitted five American fashion designers against five French couturiers for the title of fashion capital of the world. Of the ten designers selected, just one—Anne Klein—was a woman. But being the only woman chosen turned out not to be much of a victory because of the way the men at Versailles treated her. They already looked down on Klein because her customers wore her designs to work, rather than to society parties. Maybe their sneering hid a flicker of jealousy—Klein made a lot of money and was arguably more successful than her peers, but you wouldn’t know it from the way they acted toward her at Versailles.
Robin Givhan recounts, in her wonderful book about the event, “None of the other designers—not the French, not the Americans—wanted her there. Their scorn for her was obvious. She was shunted aside. . . . She was belittled. She was forced into a workspace in the basement.”
Can you imagine Halston being shoved into the basement to work? And if he had been, it’s unlikely he would have just accepted it with dignity and got on with the work the way Klein did. Everyone noticed the atmosphere at Versailles, with the models saying afterward that the male designers pushed Klein around and treated her with contempt. Donna Karan, Klein’s assistant, concurred, stating that none of the men liked Klein and they made sure she knew it. Still, Klein continued to finish off her dresses in her freezing basement room because she wanted the show to go on, in spite of the slights.
Eventually, things erupted, and target was, of course, Anne Klein. Givhan describes “a major screaming shout-down” led by Halston and that, not content with abusing Klein in front of everyone, Halston quit. Of course, he returned a couple of hours later and faced no consequences whatsoever, even after he threatened Enid Nemy of the New York Times with never being invited to his shows if she reported his behavior. Hurray for Nemy, who basically told Halston that she didn’t care about his shows.
Even Blass, in his memoir, accuses Halston of behaving “like a monster” at Versailles. He also comments that Anne Klein had “no talent.” But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll discover that she fired Blass when he was just starting out. I wonder if the two things are related?
Suffice to say, it wasn’t just hard, but almost impossible, to be a woman in fashion at this time. And those statistics from Vogue I quoted earlier show that not a lot has changed. It’s worth remembering the next time you buy a new dress or the new season blazer. And perhaps it’s worth making an effort to buy one with a woman’s name on the label so Fairchild’s legacy can finally be stamped out and so Anne Klein didn’t suffer for nothing.