American Designer Norman Norell

Born Norman David Levinson in Noblesville, Indiana on April 20, 1900, Norman Norell would rise through the ranks of fifties' American fashion designers to compete comfortably with the French haute couture community. He later changed his name, stating he would use “Nor” for Norman, add an “l” for Levinson and another “l” for looks.

Black Silk Evening Dress by Norman Norell 1955 displayed on dress form
Norman Norell Evening Dress 1955
©Metropolitan Museum
Gift of Frances Carpenter

Early Career with Hattie Carnegie

Black floral evening gown designed by Hattie Carnegie displayed on dress form
Hattie Carnegie
After graduating from the Pratt Institute for Art and Design and working as a costume designer, he met and went to work at one of the most prominent fashion houses in the world. He would later say he learned everything he knew from Hattie Carnegie.

As Carnegie had no illustration or sewing talent herself, she had Norell accompany her to Paris twice a year. While there, Norell dismantled hundreds of garments to appraise and learn the structure, design, and quality. His uncompromising attention to fit and detail led to his construction of ready-to-wear clothing on the same level with French couture.

After twelve years with Miss Carnegie, Norell left her employ in 1940 to join forces with American manufacturer Anthony Trainer. This began the collaboration of Traina-Norell that lasted until Traina's death in 1960.

A Perfectionist

With the loss of European creative muse during the early 1940's, American fashion designers were able to institute a vogue no longer inferior to Paris designs. Headquartered at 550 Seventh Avenue, Norell closely examined each garment. He commanded perfection without raising his voice and would become known as a premier New York fashion designer.

A polite and orderly man, Norell had an obsession with neatness. He once said, "I think American women look best when they are immaculately scrubbed and exquisitely groomed. They always ought to wear white gloves and pearls and own one good dress."

Black and beige Norman Norell dinner dress on dress form
Norman Norell 1957
©Metropolitan Museum
1959 Gift from Lauren Bacall

Design Style

He chose crisp fabrics and favored a tailored shift dress that changed little from season to season. The very popular fifties polka-dots had to be of woven fabric and were never printed. He preferred bound buttonholes with covered buttons and he matched the thread color to each of the changes in dots, checks, or stripes pattern colors. His clients lauded his clothes the most comfortable they had ever worn.

Deep ice blue silk and sequined floor length evening gown designed by Norman Norell displayed on mannequin
Norman Norell Silk and Sequin Evening Gown
Manufactured by Traina-Norell
©Metropolitan Museum

Norman Norell would become known for introducing couture to showrooms across America and as one of the nicest American fashion designers.  A soft spoken gentleman, Norell often ate lunch with his models and was heard to politely ask, "Would you mind?" or "Could you please?"

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