The idea of the celebrity fashion line dates as far back as 1850, when a wildly popular Swedish opera singer named Jenny Lind decided to top up her high-grossing ticket sales with a range of Jenny Lind-branded merchandise, including gloves, bonnets and shawls. Then came silent film star Irene Castle, dubbed the “best-dressed woman in America” at the time, who was the first celebrity to personally design (as well as promote and model) their own fashion line. The template for enterprising celebrities was set. Then came tennis star René Lacoste, supermodel Twiggy in the 1960s, even the Beatles tried selling psychedelic fashion. Today of course, we’re blessed with the relentless branding of the Kardashian/Jenner/West clan, but somewhere in all that celebrity fashion line history, there was Amelia Earhart, the pioneering aviatorista and all-round fabulously fierce female role model, whose celebrity branding we think would be a heck of a lot more inspiring right now.
Amelia Earhart is both a legend and a mystery. Besides being the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean before her plane disappeared in 1937, never to found again, Amelia wore a lot of other hats too. She was also social worker, a career counsellor in Aeronautics, a journalist, motivational speaker, record-setter and, as we now know, a fashion designer for her own line, Amelia Earhart Fashions.
It all began at a dinner in 1933 with designer Elsa Schiaparelli, Coco Chanel’s greatest rival. The two women discussed functional fashion and Elsa encouraged Amelia to pursue her interest in creating a line for women (she had already designed a flying suit for female aviators). Before long, Earhart and husband George Putnam began making the clothes in their own suite at the Seymour Hotel in New York. Putman, a publisher, was also a very savvy marketing man, and had helped enhance his wife’s fame by publishing her book, organising promotional tours and product endorsements.
Amelia was already greatly admired for her style by the general public and a fashion line was a natural progression. She’d designed her own clothes as a teenager and oversaw the production with George, setting up a bonafide workshop in their hotel suite, complete with sewing stations and design mannequins.
The 25-piece collection of “sports clothing” was sold in specialty Amelia Earhart Fashion shops set up exclusively inside Macy’s in New York and Marshall Field’s. The affordable separates consisted of dresses, blouses, trousers and suits with buttons shaped like propellers and hats made from parachute silk.
“For trimming, I nearly always use something characteristic of aviation”, she told reporters, “a parachute cord for tie or belt, a ball-bearing belt buckle, wing bolts and nuts for buttons”. Later, her luggage collection presented a range of bags with aviation-inspired details.
But Amelia wasn’t just designing for fellow female aviators, she was also selling clothes for women performing even the most menial “male” tasks such as driving a car– which was very often an uncomfortable activity thanks to the majority of traditional women’s clothing of the era.
Naturally, our definition of sports clothes today is far different from what they considered it to be in the 1930s, but Earhart was clearly a woman who understood the difficulties of having to present a suitable appearance in a hurry. It was important to show that Amelia Earhart was not just masculine impersonator, but an archetypal super-woman who could fly around the world by day and thriftly pattern her own functional clothes by night.
Despite being named as one of the 10 best-dressed women in America by the Fashion Designers of America in 1934, Amelia’s own fashion line didn’t get the same response with the public as her personal style did. She also had the misfortune of launching a fashion brand in the midst of the Great Depression. The line soon disappeared from stores and very little of the clothing appears to have survived.
Sitings of an Amelia Earhart clothing label on eBay or in thrift stores are a rare occurrence (and an opportunity that I would advise be seized immediately).
As for a revival– any future fashion entrepreneurs out there willing to take on such an inspiring name? I sure hope so.
The official Amelia Earhart website is probably the best place to start to learn more about licensing opportunities.