(Apr. 20, 1900-Oct. 26, 1972). For decades, Norman Norell, known as the “dean of American fashion,” produced meticulously designed women’s clothing, unrivaled in quality by any other ready-to-wear designer in the U.S. His dramatic yet minimalistic designs placed New York City on the fashion map at a time when Paris dominated the scene.

Norell was born Norman David Levinson in Noblesville, Indiana. After graduating from Shortridge High School, he moved to New York City in 1919. He studied drawing and fashion illustration at New York School of Fine and Applied Art (now Parsons Institute), where he adopted the name Norell.

Norell spent his early years in the fashion industry designing costumes. After a 12-year stint working on women’s clothing under Hattie Carnegie, Norell came into his own when he partnered with clothing manufacturer Anthony Traina, forming Traina-Norell. With Norell acting as designer and Traina the business manager, the fashion house launched its first women’s clothing collection in 1941.

Just months after the collection launched, the U.S. entrance into World War II triggered waves of war-time restrictions, which affected clothing production. These regulations and the disruption of the influential Paris fashion houses forced designers to innovate ways to keep designs fresh while complying with restrictions. Norell met that challenge with the introduction of the chemise dress, featuring a simple, round neckline and a sleek silhouette, and the skintight, sparkling “mermaid dress.”

In 1960, Anthony Traina retired and his name was dropped from the label. For the first time in his life, Norell worked under his own name. During this final stage of his career, Norell introduced the wildly successful culottes, as well as his perfume which earned over $1 million.

Over the course of his career, Norell received two highly coveted Coty American Fashion Critics’ Awards and helped establish the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Known for its outstanding quality and simple design, his work included both custom-made pieces and ready-to-wear lines.

Revised July 2021
Visual Arts

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