Amelia Earhart: Designing Fashion to Finance Flying
March 5, 2015
Amelia Earhart. We know her as a famous aviatrix—the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1932 and the daring pilot who disappeared attempting an around-the-world flight in 1937.
But long before the celebrity fashion brand frenzy of more recent decades—think Jaclyn Smith, Jessica Simpson, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Jay Z and countless others—Amelia Earhart had her own fashion line.
Yes, the motivation was to make money. Not to support a lavish lifestyle, but to finance her true passion—the adventure of flying.
Amelia Earhart (1897-1937) took her first flying lesson in January 1921. Six months later she had managed to save enough money to buy a second-hand plane—and set out to make a name for herself. In October 1922, she established a world altitude record for female pilots—14,000 feet. In May 1923, Earhart became the 16th woman in the world to be issued a pilot’s license.
But Earhart truly “flew” onto the world stage in June 1928, when she was invited to become the first woman to fly the Atlantic—as a passenger. Wilmer Stultz flew the plane, with Louis Gordon acting as co-pilot, as the trio made their successful journey from Newfoundland to Wales. Charles Lindbergh had made his solo flight from New York to Paris the previous year, May 1927—earning the nickname “Lucky Lindy.” The press now dubbed Amelia “Lady Lindy.”
Publisher and publicist George Putnam was one of the project’s coordinators. Putnam had published Charles Lindbergh’s blockbuster autobiography in 1927, and began to heavily promote Amelia through a book, lecture tours, and product endorsements. These activities not only provided Earhart’s chief source of income, but also enhanced her fame. Putnam and Earhart’s partnership flourished, both professionally and personally—in February 1931, George Putnam became Amelia Earhart’s husband.
Earhart continued flying, of course. Spectacularly. In May 1932, 34-year-old Earhart took off from Newfoundland, landing in Northern Ireland nearly 15 hours later. Amelia Earhart had become the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic.
The fashion line was likely Amelia’s husband’s idea—the seed perhaps planted when the couple hosted renowned fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli for a Sunday lunch in February 1933. During the visit, Amelia chatted with Schiaparelli about functional clothing for “active living.” Since 1928, George Putnam had cashed in on Amelia’s name through product endorsements that included Pratt & Whitney aircraft engines, Peter’s Original Chocolate Bar, Hudson automobiles, and a Kodak movie camera. Earhart was already admired for her sense of style. As a teenager, Amelia had made some of her own clothes. And, in 1929, Earhart had designed a practical flying suit for women aviators. Fashion, then, seemed a natural fit.
Earhart and Putman oversaw the design and production of the garments for Amelia Earhart Fashions at their Hotel Seymour suite in New York. In Amelia’s workspace were tables with fabrics, a sewing machine, a dressmaker’s mannequin, and a seamstress. How much Earhart was involved with the design process is unclear–though the designs were undoubtedly influenced by her concept of style for function. She likely chose fabrics and colors.
Amelia Earhart launched her clothing line, Amelia Earhart Fashions, in late 1933. The clothing debuted at R.H. Macy & Co. in New York. Among the 30 department stores that carried the clothing line in special Amelia Earhart boutique shops were Strawbridge & Clothier of Philadelphia, Marshall Field in Chicago, and The Emporium in San Francisco. It included 25 outfits that were tailored to look good and wear well, to be sold at medium prices. The brand’s label, sewn into each garment, featured Earhart’s signature in black with a thin red line streaking through it as it trailed behind a soaring red plane.
A flurry of publicity ensued in the first months of 1934, actively encouraged by Putnam. In the living room of Earhart and Putnam's suite at the Hotel Seymour, Earhart worked on the clothing line when not on tour giving lectures. Putnam encouraged the press to drop in to interview Amelia about this new facet of her career. In these interviews, Earhart said her goal was to create beautiful, affordable clothing for women, at prices that didn't reach "new altitudes." She told one newspaper reporter that she liked her clothing to include "something characteristic of aviation, a parachute cord or tie or belt, a ball-bearing belt buckle, wing bolts and nuts for buttons."
The garments produced under Amelia Earhart’s name were not unique designs—rather, they mirrored the slim-fitting styles of the contemporary sportswear then in vogue. The clothing was made of washable materials with simple lines. Many of the fashions--like a trench coat--reflected Earhart's flying clothes. The line included a Harris Tweed coat that had a zip-in, washable lining and raincoats in "parachute" silk with buttons shaped like propellers. Earhart's clothing innovations included the idea of matching "separates" so that a woman did not have to buy a suit in one size, but could purchase a jacket and skirt in two different sizes to fit her figure. Earhart also designed her blouses with long shirt tails that wouldn’t come untucked. Dresses made of washable cotton sold for $30, while neutral-colored tweed suits sold for $55. For those who could not afford the ready-made versions, sewing patterns of the Earhart designs were available through the Woman's Home Companion magazine.
Despite the publicity garnered by Earhart's foray into clothing design, the line didn't catch on with the public. It quickly disappeared from stores. Introducing the brand in the midst of the Great Depression didn’t help sales. Too, Earhart's busy schedule of aviation-related lectures and activities—as well as participating in the development (at least to some degree) and promotion of the clothing—left her exhausted.
Though her clothing line had gone into a tailspin, in December 1934 the Fashion Designers of America named Amelia Earhart one of the ten best-dressed women in America. Amelia’s fashion sense, then, gained acclaim--even if her fashions did not. And the clothing? Little of it appears to have survived—just like the clues to her disappearance in the skies so long ago.
Who owned this Amelia Earhart blouse?
This blouse belonged to Willa Wright Nicodemus (1884-1945). Willa grew up on a Missouri farm, later moving to Chicago where she worked as a clerk in a brokerage office. In 1932, 47-year-old Willa Wright married Edwin Nicodemus, a retired banker and lawyer. The couple enjoyed travel and outdoor pursuits, fishing in Canada in 1934, cruising the Yukon River in Alaska in 1936, and touring Nevada and the Colorado River in 1937.
It appears that Willa lived just the sort of active life Amelia Earhart had in mind.
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.
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