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Celebrity-endorsed clothing lines are often met with speculation. Just how much input did J.Lo offer for her shoe line? Did Victoria Beckham really choose the fabrics for her children’s clothing? Does Kanye stay up nights laboring over a Singer sewing machine, preparing for his next fashion show? While celebrity experience and involvement may vary greatly depending on the fashion line, the concept is older than you might think. Decades before Jessica Simpson’s fashion empire launched, long before Jaclyn Smith debuted her now-legendary Kmart collections, world-famous aviatrix Amelia Earhart debuted Amelia Earhart Fashions, the first ever celebrity fashion line.
It was 1934, and Amelia Earhart was a household name thanks to being the first woman to successfully complete a trans-Atlantic flight. America was enamored with flight, and alongside Charles Lindbergh, Earhart enjoyed celebrity status, socializing with actors and high society. Unlike the movie stars of her time, however, Earhart was not being paid like a celebrity, and she needed funds in order to finance her true passion: flying.
Earhart’s husband, George Putnam, was a promoter by trade. His family ran a successful publishing firm, G.P. Putnam’s Sons Inc., and he was responsible for one of their bestselling titles, We, an autobiographical account of Charles Lindbergh’s life and trans-Atlantic flight. Putnam and Earhart first met when he offered to help her write her own book in the same vein of Lindbergh’s, and after years of collaborating on the project, they fell in love and married. Putnam organized Earhart’s press tours and endorsements, including lending her name to a luggage line under the Baltimore Luggage Company that was produced from 1933 up until the 1970s.
Earhart had prior experience with clothing construction. Like many young women of her generation, sewing was a skill learned early. Also like many others at the time, she made her own dresses instead of purchasing ready-to-wear clothing. Her initial foray into design for others was in her role as the first president of the Ninety-Nines — thus named for its 99 members — a society of female aviators. Flight suits were all designed with male pilots in mind, so Earhart designed a female-friendly suit that consisted of two separate pieces and a logo of her own making: two interlocking 9s. As an incentive for her fellow aviatrices, Earhart sponsored a “Hat of the Month” club, which awarded a Stetson of her own design to the Ninety-Nine who flew into the most airports each month.
While the best-known photographs of Earhart give the impression that she was a lanky tomboy with a no-fuss aesthetic who lived in a leather bomber jacket and men’s trousers, she loved dressing up and experimenting with fashion. In 1928, she was hired as an aviation editor at Cosmopolitan, a decidedly fashionable women’s magazine. While hosting a lunch for Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli, contemporary and rival of the more widely known Coco Chanel, Earhart expressed her desire for more practical fashions in order to be stylish while active.
With Schiaparelli’s encouragement, Earhart began designing her own ideas for a collection. “Because she was very interested in practical clothing for women, it seemed like a fit to do this fashion line,” says Jeanine Head Miller, curator of Domestic Life at the Henry Ford Museum, which has a blouse with the Amelia Earhart label that will be part of an upcoming display about the late aviatrix. Earhart’s goal, according to Miller, was to create affordable fashion for the active woman.
Putnam had experience trading on Earhart’s fame — he had done so many times over with sponsorships from and endorsements for everything from cigarettes to chocolates — and he used Earhart’s name to secure funding for her fashion line through U.S. Rubber. In 1934, the Amelia Earhart line was launched selectively in 30 major cities. “They had an interesting marketing strategy,” Miller says, “and the designs were only marketed in one [department] store in each city. There was a separate and discrete Amelia Earhart boutique in each location, set apart from the rest of the store.”
The designs themselves did not stand out from others at the time, although Earhart Designs is believed to be the first collection sold as separates, meaning women were able to buy a differently sized top to accompany their skirts. Until this point, ready-to-wear was sold together by size, and women would need to tailor any items to account for any differentiation in size.
Dorothy Cochrane, curator of general aviation at the National Air and Space Museum, notes that Earhart drew on her flight experience as inspiration for her fashion line. “Earhart took the flying clothing, and made it more of a woman’s design,” she says. “She followed along the activewear of that era, from other female athletes as well as from stars like Katharine Hepburn, and from there her comfortable clothing evolved.”
Historians have mixed opinions about just how involved in the construction process Earhart really was. While some posit that Earhart and Putnam sewed each piece themselves in their hotel rooms, others, such as Miller, contend that her involvement was less hands-on. “She probably was not designing every piece, but most likely played a role in choosing fabrics, colors, and the overall look,” she says.
But Earhart believed strongly in her aesthetic, which aimed to combine her love of fashion with her love of aviation. An article in the the New York World Telegram, dated December 29th, 1933, quotes Earhart as saying, “I have always believed that clothes are terribly important in every woman’s life… And I also believe that there is much of beauty in aviation — color and line that is exclusive to the air, which I have attempted to express in sports clothes.”
The fabrics Earhart chose for her line were those she wore most in her professional life: parachute silks and Grenfell cottons allowed all of her garments to be washable, which appealed to savvy shoppers looking to save on cleaning costs. Special attention was paid to embellishments, which included propeller-shaped buttons, belts made from parachute cord, and even fasteners made from actual wing bolts. Additionally, Earhart paid special attention to the length of her shirt tails, having grown frustrated with the short-waisted designs manufactured by other designers.
Although her designs were moderately priced for the time, Earhart also knew from experience that not everyone could afford ready-to-wear clothing, so it was important to her that home sewers also had access to her designs. Magazines at the time, including Woman’s Home Companion, printed patterns of her designs for home-sewing use.
In spite of its initial success, however, Amelia Earhart Fashions lasted but one season. America was in the dead center of the Great Depression, and fashion was seen as a frivolity to the potential buyers. Earhart continued to fly, finding other sources of financing, until her disappearance in 1937.