March 5 – March 30, 2019
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The Traphagen School of Fashion played an important role in the development of American
fashion. Largely forgotten today, the school opened in 1923 in New York City and trained
over 28,000 students. Alumni included Geoffrey Beene, James Galanos, and Anne Klein,
all of whom utilized the training they received there throughout their careers. The Traphagen School: Fostering American Fashion celebrates the school’s lasting influence on the fashion industry by examining the
history of the school and its design philosophies — which included design-by-adaptation
and experimentation — as well as its innovative approach to marketing.
Portrait of Ethel Traphagen, photographer unknown,
from The Silhouette, The Traphagen School of Fashion, 1933.
Ethel Traphagen, the school’s founder, was one of the first teachers of fashion design
and illustration in New York City. She also worked in the fashion industry as a writer
and illustrator. After winning first prize for her design of an evening dress in a
1913 contest, Traphagen was hired by the Ladies’ Home Journal as a contributor. This contest was the first of many promoted by the American design
movement, which sought to encourage original American designs that were free from
When Ethel Traphagen established her school, she built on the foundational concepts
of the American design movement. Design-by-adaptation was its core philosophy. This
approach to fashion design took details such as colors, motifs, and construction elements
from fine art, diverse cultural artifacts, and historical objects, then abstracted
them to align with the preferences and lifestyles of American consumers.
Zanbaraza print dress, c. 1929,
gift of June Mayper. 74.43.1
The Traphagen School was known for its study collection of artifacts, as well as its
library, which housed a large collection of books and historic fashion plates available
to students to use as sources of inspiration. A 1929-1930 “Zanbaraza” dress made by
students at the school features a textile design with a shield motif that was inspired
by items Traphagen collected on a 1928 trip to Nairobi, Kenya. Forty years later,
James Galanos incorporated historical motifs from ancient Greek pottery into the textiles
for his spring/summer 1970 collection, a testament to the lasting influence of design-by-adaptation.
James Galanos, Textile Designer: Tzaims Luksus, Evening dress and overskirt,
1970, gift of Maurice S. Polkowitz. 86.80.1
The Traphagen School also encouraged experimentation. Students routinely worked with
new materials and explored different construction techniques. A 1939 collection of
bathing suits and beach accessories made from a new water-resistant fabric called
Koroseal is typical of the school’s experimental work. Alumni continued to employ
experimental practices throughout their careers. For instance, in 1959 Luis Estévez
created an evening gown out of lightweight cotton voile, as opposed to a more conventional
evening wear fabric, such as silk satin.
Grenelle-Estevez, evening dress,
c. 1957, gift of Sylvia Levine. 92.173.6
In addition to her design philosophies, Ethel Traphagen modeled marketing for her
students, largely through a semi- quarterly magazine called Fashion Digest. The magazine chronicled and promoted the many partnerships between students and
industry professionals on design projects and highlighted alumni work. The cover of each issue featured a silhouette of a figure wearing medieval clothing. This logo
was also used for The Traphagen School’s other promotional materials, foreshadowing branding strategies that are standard
in the industry today. By emulating Traphagen’s methods of self-promotion, many of
her students were able to achieve commercial success. For example, Anne Klein also
integrated a logo into her marketing campaigns, prompting consumers to associate a
lion’s face with the freedom of Klein’s sportswear separates. American women wore
Klein’s comfortable ensembles for all occasions, emphasizing the versatility of her
garments and her awareness of the needs of modern women.
Geoffrey Beene, quilted silk and wool ensemble,
Fall 1983, gift of Sally Kahan. 2013.29.2
Carolyn Schnurer, cotton one shoulder dress, 1952, gift of Mitch Rein. 82.153.80
Geoffrey Beene, cocktail dress, 1969, gift of Jane L. Rodgers. 2002.58.1
In 1973, the Battle of Versailles was organized as a fundraiser for the restoration
of the French palace. It was marketed as a competition between
American ready-to-wear designers and Parisian haute couturiers. The five American
designers, which included Klein and Stephen Burrows, presented dynamic and modern
fashions that made French couture seem outdated in comparison.
Klein’s participation at the Battle of Versailles underscored the significant influence
of educational institutions on the American fashion industry. Burrows was an alumnus
of the Fashion Institute of Technology, which was founded in 1945 and continues to
educate fashion professionals today. Although The Traphagen School closed its doors
in 1991, its legacy lives on at institutions such as FIT.
Anne Klein, white leather tunic and skirt set,
1968, gift of Dorothy Pollack. 88.15.3
The Traphagen School: Fostering American Fashion was organized by the graduate students in the Fashion Institute of Technology’s MA
program in Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice, with the support of Sarah Byrd, Keren Ben-Horin, Emma McClendon, and Elizabeth Way.