Playing a major role in the fifties fashion industry, Hattie Carnegie was instrumental in transforming the delivery of high quality custom designs to wholesale and ready to wear clientele. Not only did she sell her own exclusive fashions, she frequented exclusive Paris salons to remodel haute couture for American tastes.
Born Henrietta Kanengeiser on March 15, 1886, Hattie immigrated from Vienna with her tailor father, mother, and siblings to New York in 1900. Carnegie was taught millinery skills during her employment at Macy’s Department Stores and began her career, as many early designers did, as a milliner.
Joining forces with her seamstress friend, Rose Roth, Carnegie opened a dressmaking and millinery shop on East 10th Street in New York City. They named it Roth-Carnegie, Inc. After buying out her partner on July 16, 1919, the Hattie Carnegie designer clothing label was incorporated and her fashion empire began.
More businesswoman than designer, Carnegie was adept at importing French designs and fashioning them for the American woman. Practiced in her trade, she reserved the most exquisite finds for her socialite, royalty, and movie star clientele.
A handsome woman, Carnegie wore each of her creations with style and grace. If a particular suit was admired by a customer, she often donned another outfit to allow her suit to be purchased.
Recognizing only the richest would be able to purchase her designs after the Wall Street crash of 1929, she added a ready to wear line with modestly priced clothing available in department stores. Whether a classic cut suit or a vintage formal dress, the “Carnegie Look” is synonymous with good taste and superb workmanship.
Adding a line of costume jewelry to her store in 1939 would prove to be a profitable venture with her signed aurora borealis jewelry remaining a popular collectors item today. Her shops would eventually stock a selection of dresses, suits, evening wear, lingerie, cosmetics, jewelry, hats, scarves, and perfumes. She said she dressed women from “Hat to Hem.”
Known more for her ability to edit fashion than to illustrate or sew, her true talents lay in her ability to recognize a designer’s potential to interpret her concept and impressions. Many of these American Fashion Designers would leave her employ to begin their own design houses without gaining recognition for their contribution to her fashions. Some of the talent that graced her design tables included Norman Norell, Pauline Trigére, Travis Banton, Jean Louis, Claire McCardell, and John Galanos.
Although her many awards included the Coty American Fashion Critic’s Award for her women’s wear in 1948, Carnegie stated her greatest honor was receiving the Congressional Medal of Freedom in 1952 for her design of the 1951 Women’s Army Corp. uniform.
Carnegie died of cancer on February 22, 1956 with her beloved husband at her bedside. Although her legacy as a fashion icon remains, Hattie Carnegie, Inc. did not survive past the 1970s.