Eleanor Lambert: Godmother of American Fashion
How a Girl from a Small Town in Indiana Became One of the Most Influential Figures in Fashion
By: Trinity Carney
For fashion lovers, the name Eleanor Lambert is a staple. Without her, some of my favorite fashion events like the MET Gala would not exist. In fact, without her some of my favorite American designers would not exist either. That is how important Lambert is to American fashion. Because I know how important she is to American fashion and the creation of the MET Gala, I can only image she was turning in her grave at the sight of last year’s gala which was themed ‘In America: A Lexicon of Fashion.’ Little to no one came in theme, and a majority of the designers on display were not American. That is quite literally the opposite of what she stood for. Lambert spent seven decades of her life popularizing American fashion and creating spaces for American designers when Europe would not welcome them. At a time when PR and designers were equally neglected in fashion, Lambert was able to:
Create a new field of PR
Use innovation to save the American fashion industry
Advocate for American designers
Eleanor Lambert took the fashion world by storm. She saw how the American fashion industry was going, and she took it upon herself to keep it afloat. Nothing, including a world war, could stop her from taking over the industry and shaping it into what it is today.
The Birth of a new PR field
Before Eleanor Lambert, there was no such thing as “fashion public relations.” This has a big part to do with the fact that the American fashion industry was still in its infancy until Lambert came along. In the 1930’s she began doing PR for the Whitney Museum of American Art and by the mid-1930s, she became their first press director. Her heart lay in fashion though, so she began using her PR skills for the American fashion industry. When Lambert began her “Out of Town Fashion Week,” in the ‘40s, news outlets around the nation finally began to write about fashion. Her annual fundraiser for the MET also provided the American fashion industry with a well-needed PR push. There were not many fashion exhibits at the time, and her event gave publicity to historical fashion and the costume institute. Even more iconic was the Battle of Versailles, which Lambert held on Nov. 28, 1973 in collaboration with the curator of the Palace of Versailles. The event pitted American and French designers against each other in an effort to raise money for the restoration of the palace. Legendary designers such as Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Hubert de Givenchy, Oscar de la Renta, Halston, and Anne Klein duked it out to determine which country was better at fashion. Attendants included the likes of Andy Warhol and Josephine Baker. In addition to the historic American win, the fashion show also broke barriers for black models. Eleven were included in the show, which was unprecedented at the time. Without Lambert’s creative events, perseverance and love of fashion and PR, the fashion PR industry would not be where it is today.
An Advocate for Artists
Through her Press Week shows and best-dressed list, Lambert was the first to put designers centerstage. Before Lambert, there were no major designers in SAKS. In fact, the names of designers were not public knowledge like they are today; instead, you were only aware of manufacturers. This changed with the creation of her “Press Week.” Designers finally had a place where they could showcase their collections and reach to a large number of reporters. In 1942, Lambert suggested that there should be prizes for designers; as a response, the Coty Awards were founded. Helmed as the fashion Oscars, the award show offered a level of prestige to American designers. Due to the fact that she had a profound respect for designers, Lambert left the New York Dress Institute. Their lack of respect and support of designers led her to create The Council of Fashion Designers of America in 1962. Today, CFDA provides guidance to experienced and new designers while also supporting the endeavors of student designers.
Saved the American Fashion Industry
In an effort to boost American fashion’s popularity, Lambert created the International Best Dressed List in 1940. Thanks to Lambert and her list, American designers such as Halston and Oscar de la Renta were catapulted to stardom in Europe. Her list is also the reason why the fashion capital changed from Paris to Manhattan. In the mid to late 1940s, Lambert also created the March of Dimes fashion show, a large parade to raise money for polio research. When the costume institute was created, it was Lambert who suggested that such important American fashion belonged in an art museum. In 1949, she implemented the costume institute’s “Party of the Year,” which is now referred to as the MET Gala. The gala has gone on to become one of the most exclusive events in the country; and while it may be historical art on display, the event still serves as one of the most popular runways for designers.
Eleanor Lambert was just as much a fashionista as she was an exceptional PR professional. She is a prime example of creating a lane when the one she desired to be in did not exist. Through her stellar imagination, Lambert was able to come up with the most extravagant event ideas, most of which are a staple today. As a graduating Mayborn student, I can only hope to impact the world of PR as she did. There will never be another Eleanor Lambert, although one can dream.
About the writer
Trinity Carney is a senior PR student at the University of Texas. She will graduate in May 2022 and hopes to go into film and entertainment PR.