Monday, March 18, 2019

THE TRAPHAGEN SCHOOL Fostering American Fashion: Review By Polly Guerin

Ethel Traphagen photographer unknown
To the world at large the name Traphagen may have very little significance, but to fashion insiders, historians and some fashionistas they remember that Ethel Traphagen, illustrator and fashion designer was founder with her husband, the artist William R. Leigh of the TRAPHAGEN SCHOOL OF DESIGN  where they both taught at the school and she served as director. The first fashion school of its kind, it opened in 1923 at 1680 Broadway. It is interesting to note that the school's founding predates The Fashion Institute of Technology which opened in 1944.  
      However, this story is not just about a fashion school it is about the meteoric rise of American fashion that would rival Paris couture that had held the title of Empress of Fashion since its founding by Charles Frederick Worth in 1800s. 
     The School of Graduate Studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology presents an engaging and well documented tribute to THE TRAPHAGEN SCHOOL, Fostering American Fashion in an exhibit which runs through to March 31, 2019.. The exhibit in the Museum at FIT is open Tuesday through Friday noon to 8 p.m., Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. free admission
      1912, A PIVOTAL YEAR: When the New York Times announced the first ever American Fashion contest in collaboration with Ladies Home Journal editor, Edward Bok who had been promoting"AMERICAN FASHION FOR AMERICAN WOMEN "since 1910.  You must remember that at this time American designers were incognito so to speak. They labored under the influence of Parisian styles and merely adapted the silhouettes at various price points.  
The Winner, Dress Design inspired by ART
THE WINNER:Thirty-year-old Ethel Traphagen of Brooklyn, New York was was one such designer, unremarkable and obscure until she won the coveted first place evening dress award in the New York Times contest. At six feet tall the red-haired, blue-eyed Ethel would become a dynamic pioneer in American fashion
ORIGINAL AMERICAN DESIGN: Ethel believed that American design could be achieved by the study of art and fashion history as a source of inspiration and that would become the mantra of instruction when the school was established. Ethel's winning dress design was based on the painting Nocturne Blue and Gold, Old Battersea Bridge by Abbott McNeil Whistler. 
      When Ethel established Traphagen School it was built on the fundamental American design movement: Design by Adaptation was its core philosophy. The Traphagen School was known for its study collections. artifacts that included books and historic fashion plates made available to students to use hands-on for inspiration. Such a tenet was also adapted by the Hewitt Sisters, particularly Eleanor, who made their artifacts and collections available to students for research and interpretation. As far as designer recognition goes, very few rose to the heights of our present day superstars. However, in the 1940's Lord and Taylor was the firsr department store to
elevate American Designers to stardom, featuring them in window displays and bring to the fore
such luminaries as Bonnie Cashin and later Anne Klein. THE BATTLE OF VERSAILLES: Worth mentioning here this event's intent was to raise money for the restoration of the French palace. It pitted American ready-to-wear designers and the Parisian haute couturiers. 
Traphagen Archive Illustration
Bravo! The American 
designers presented modern, cutting-edge fashions, which made the French couture seem outdated and in consequential. THE TRAPHAGEN SCHOOL MAY HAVE BEEN THE STANDARD BEARER OF ILLUSTRATION AND DESIGN, BUT THE FASHION BEAT GOES ON EVER TO HEIGHTS OF UNPRECEDENTED ACCLAIM AT THE FASHION INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY. Traphagen closed is doors in 1991 and FIT opened in 1945 beating the path to
international fashion history.
    Ta Ta Darlings!!!! Polly was a professor in the fashion merchandising department at FIT for over 25 years and conducted  a summer study tour in Europe for 20 young women students through the fashion capitals of London, Paris, Milan and St. Tropez visiting haute couture and not so haute designers as well as factories and retail stores. Visit Polly's Blogs at
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  2. I went to this school in the 1980's it was a great experience.

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