9 Things About: Hattie Carnegie

Every time I hear the name “Carnegie,” the famous hall in New York City comes to mind. Andrew Carnegie was like the Paul McCartney of the steel industry, dominating it in the late 19th century in North America, tattooing his name on many decadent buildings, schools, and libraries. Shamefully, when I first heard of Hattie Carnegie I automatically assumed she must have been related to him, since everything else famous with that name seemed to be.

Off to Google I went, anticipating that Hattie was a fancy heiress gone fashion designer à la Stella McCartney, only to be proven I had it all wrong. Hattie Carnegie wasn’t related to Andrew Carnegie; in fact, not only was that not her real name, but she wasn’t even American. Henriette Kanengeiser emigrated from Austria to New York in 1886. En route, she asked around to find out who the most successful person in America was, and upon arrival started her own fashion line under a new name. She morphed into the pseudonym in order to tap into the power and success of the Carnegie name. Whether or not the name gifted her with special powers I’m not sure, but either way Hattie Carnegie was pretty magical. Here is why:

1. Carnegie was a wonderful fashion designer without actually sewing anything. In 1909 she opened a little hat shop in New York, and her first clothing collection was established in 1918. Carnegie was the first fashion house to sell ready-to-wear lines as a high-end luxury. Although unable to even hem a dress, she was brilliant at envisioning clothing and accessories and would work together with others to create her pieces.

2. By the 1920s, Hattie Carnegie Inc. branched quickly with hats, accessories, and jewelry, selling pieces that were directly bought from Paris couturiers. Americans could buy Chanel in New York rather than having to travel halfway across the globe.

3. Her business was so successful that it even thrived throughout the Great Depression. As difficult times bubbled across the country, Carnegie created a cheaper line called Spectator Sports that offered clothing at a fraction of the regular cost.

4. In the 1930s, she designed the iconic “little Carnegie suit.” The tightly shaped suit was almost a staple piece for every side swipe-haired femme fatale dangling a cigarette or gun, flirting her hips at the Humphrey Bogart characters in films of the time (it was all in the way the suit showed off its wearer’s curves).

5. Hattie was considered to be so cool in the fashion world that she very often appeared in her own ads for her store and clothing.

6. The press thought she was awesome, too; she had a “Vogue points from Hattie Carnegie,” every month in Vogue magazine detailing new styles. Carnegie wasn’t just a fashion designer; she was also considered to have an authorialesque voice on style.

7. Lucille Ball can thank Hattie Carnegie for her career, as she had her start modelling for Carnegie Inc. It was through her recognition as a model that Lucille ended up becoming a Chesterfield Girl and going to Hollywood.

8. In 1950, Hattie Carnegie designed the first women’s Army Corps uniform that was used up until 1968. Today it’s the iconic symbol of vintage women’s American army wear almost anywhere. We see it on TV, on posters, on greeting cards, and everywhere in between.

9. Mostly, I simply love the woman for saying, “Fads aren’t fashion. There is a difference: fashion never outdates itself.”

text by Paulina Kulacz

3 thoughts on “9 Things About: Hattie Carnegie

  1. I love that suit on Joan Crawford and am very pleased to know more about who created it. What a savvy business woman, eh? Thanks Paulina!

  2. This is great–I love the fact about the “Carnegie suit,” which is a term I’ve never heard.
    If I had one wish, though, it would be some more info on the sources and dates of the photos… Esp the top left and the colour photo.

  3. Thank you for this quick intro to the charming Madame Carnegie– seems like a good name to in terms of for mid-century American fashion. I particularly love the story of the pseudonym. Agreed that captions or sources of the photos would be lovely.

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