Born in Fresno, California and named after a beloved family horse, Bonnie Cashin emerged from modest surroundings to become a pioneer of American style in the mid-20th century and be hailed as the ‘mother’ of designer ready-to-wear. Rosie Cowling reports.

Although she never trained formally, Cashin was born to design. She began designing her own clothes at 12 as ‘apprentice’ to her mother Eunice, a dress shop owner and custom dressmaker. With her encouragement, and that of her father Carl, a photographer, Cashin began to cultivate a great affection for design, drafting up illustrations using her mother’s dresses and her father’s custom work overalls as her initiation.

Those very overalls would later become the inspiration for the first women’s jumpsuit. As a senior in High School, Cashin’s creativity was flourishing and she was beginning to establish a unique style in her designs. Pursuing her second love, dance, Cashin auditioned for the chorus line of Fanchon and Marco, a local vaudeville company. Bottling the audition was to become the defining moment
in her career, as, too terrified to dance, she showed her drawings to the company director who hired her as costume designer on the spot.

She was to follow the troupe to New York, where she designed for the Roxy Theatre chorus girls, The Roxyettes until in 1938. Those very costumes, to which she attributed her only ‘formal’ schooling in design, led to her being named “the youngest designer to hit Broadway” by Variety magazine.

Legendary Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow soon pricked up her ears and through this connection, Cashin was appointed chief ready-to-wear designer at Adler & Adler. In 1941, with WWII well underway, Cashin was commissioned to design uniforms for serving women, along with fellow designers Vera Maxwell and Claire McCardell.

Cashin returned to glamour after the war, designing for Twentieth Century Fox and resuming her position at Adler & Adler in 1950. In 1951, Cashin emerged from in-house design to achieve creative freedom in Bonnie Cashin Designs, Inc. Designing for the military in the war fostered an appreciation for comfort and sustainability in her designs. Cashin was now working with organic materials new to ready-to-wear clothing, such as leather and canvas, and adding modern details like industrial-strength zips and toggles, which would be a feature of her handbag designs for Coach.

Cashin was a pioneer. She introduced the concept of layering and favoured ease of movement over high-stylisation. She created the first canvas raincoat in 1952 and the jumpsuit in 1957. While innovative and effortless, her designs were also practical. The poncho came about after she cut a hole in the top of a blanket to stay warm while driving her convertible. The toggles that she added to handbags and coats were inspired by those on the soft roof of her beloved car.

Her first collection’s name, “We Live as We Please” reflects the easy femininity and blithe nature of her designs. She was inspired by the history of world clothing and her kimonos and tunics created new relaxed silhouettes for women in the Fifties and early Sixties.

Cashin’s signature look, loose-fitting and layered, continues to be seen on today’s catwalks. Next time you’re caught in a rainstorm in a stylish and practical raincoat, remember that it was Cashin’s conspicuous first.