I had never heard of designer Bonnie Cashin until I read an article about her three years ago in the New York Times Magazine, written by Stephanie Day Iverson, who was doing her thesis on Cashin. Cashin had just died, at the age of 91, and Iverson, who had become a very close friend of the designer, was making an impassioned attempt to reclaim a place for her in fashion history. Cashin had suffered a long period of neglect. Even the Times fashion editor had only recently learned of her, according to Iverson.

Iverson’s piece stunned me. From it I learned that Bonnie Cashin was one of the most innovative designers of the 20th century, someone who worked for over seven decades and was responsible for introducing many concepts that continue to fuel fashion today, from the idea of the layered and ethnic looks to the use of leather as a high-fashion material. It wasn’t only Cashin’s designs but her philosophy that excited me. Where had Cashin been, I wondered? How could she have been lost for so many years?

Childhood fashion illustration, 1925

I never forgot that article. And then last week, there I was, in the Department of Special Collections at Charles E. Young Research Library at UCLA, doing some research on Raymond Chandler for a novel, when I noticed someone installing a small exhibit. What caught my eye were these incredible hats made of brightly colored woven paper. When I walked over for a closer look, I saw the text identifying them as Bonnie Cashin’s designs. It was one of those ohmygod moments. Here was the work of the woman I’d read about that so excited me, in a place I least expected to find it.

And then there was Iverson herself, installing the show, called “Chic Is Where You Find It,” which she curated. When I told her how excited I’d been by her article and asked what Cashin’s work was doing in the library, she told me that last fall, in what amounted to a quiet little coup, the UCLA library acquired the Bonnie Cashin Archive, accompanied by a gift of $1.5 million from the Cashin estate to care for it and eventually create an online archive. Iverson, whose decision it largely was to decide where the estate would end up and who for the next few years will oversee it, was thrilled by this outcome. “In a sense,” she said, “it’s like bringing Bonnie home.”

Cashin paper hats, 1965

Cashin was born in Fresno, to a dressmaker mother, and was already designing clothes as a student at Hollywood High. Iverson explained that even though Cashin lived much of her later life in New York (except for six years spent in Hollywood in the ’40s, designing costumes for films) she never lost her love of the West Coast and drew on it for inspiration. The idea of layering, for instance, came from her visits to Chinatown, where she observed workers’ outfits in the changing weather: Was it a one-shirt day, or two?

This story, like others told about Cashin, has been oft repeated, yet still seems amazing. There’s the one about the poncho she invented after cutting a hole in a blanket to stay warm while riding in her convertible, and the dog-collar snaps she attached to long skirts to allow one to climb stairs while holding a martini. Or the full-length leather raincoat with inside pockets for books that she designed in the 1950s, and the all-leather suits from the same era that one reporter claimed looked like “ladies from Mars.”

Cover of 1964 Coach brochure,
featuring a Cashin sketch 

To me this is the genius of Cashin: She was the first to design for the truly modern woman — she wanted to make versatile clothes for people who were doing things. Her ideas came out of her own travels. She helped women become mobile and free. She gave us leather, with its bold and sexy feel. She was the thinking woman’s designer, friend of Buckminster Fuller, who was only one of her intellectual heroes. She read a lot. She knew women’s roles were changing, and she intuited that life could be fast and flirty and fun for women: You want to go to India or China? Go right ahead! And here’s a chic, portable, layered wardrobe for your adventure. One that will fit in a bag.

All this comes through in the show at UCLA. Modest as it is, it’s a very personal look at Cashin’s life and work and includes many photographs and early sketches, as well as a few examples of clothing and the famous “Cashin Carry” Coach bags.

“She is an American icon,” Iverson told me. “My objective is to ensure her proper place in 20th-century culture. She was a brilliant, madcap character, and her love of creative endeavors is contagious.” Having caught the Cashin passion, I can attest that this is true.

“Chic Is Where You Find It,” Department of Special Collections at Charles E. Young Research Library, Room A713, UCLA, North Campus (Hilgard and Wyton entrance); Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; (310) 825-4988; free.
All images in this articles were provided courtesy of the library's Bonnie Cashin Archive.
See the online exhibit.

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