Amelia Earhart’s Other Runway: The Aviator’s Forgotten Fashion Line – History
Aviatrix. Pioneer. Record breaker. Fashion entrepreneur?
Amelia Earhart’s accomplishments above the clouds made her a worldwide icon, but she was also a savvy businesswoman. In the 30s, Earhart became one of the first celebrities to create her own fashion line. Today, women almost always purchase their clothing as “separates,” but it was the record-setting aviator who first popularized this trend. While this little-known aspect of her iconic career ended up being a complete flop, her fashion-forward, yet practical, designs continue to influence fashion designs to this day.
After becoming the first woman to fly across the Atlantic as a solo pilot, Earhart found herself short of funds. In order to ensure that her career as a groundbreaking aviator didn’t just crash and burn, Earhart and her husband George Charles Putnam (who also served as her manager) turned to fashion.
The idea for Earhart’s line was likely inspired by a visit from renowned fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli. The two women discussed the idea of practical clothes for “active living,” the same brand of clothing that Earhart would later release.
Earhart began manufacturing her clothing line in 1933 in her suite in New York’s Hotel Seymour. Her work space only included a sewing machine and a mannequin. With the help of a single seamstress, Earhart brought her fashion line to life. Initially debuting at R.H. Macy & Co. in New York, Amelia Earhart Fashions went on to be sold at 30 department stores nationwide.
The clothing line included 25 outfits, from dresses and skirts to pants and outerwear. Each garment featured a tag with Earhart’s signature in black writing overlapping a red plane darting from left to right.
The clothing line was groundbreaking, eccentric and practical. And although families across the country were struggling with the fallout from the Great Depression, fashion—albeit fashion on a dime—was still as important as ever.
Fashion icons of the time, such as Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn, helped usher in the trend of sensible clothing for women. Earhart took note of the trends by marketing “separates” to women of the 1930s, which allowed for women to wear different tops and bottoms to accommodate a variety of figures instead of adhering to the one-size-fits-all mold of dresses. The popularization of separates during that time have set the standard for most women’s clothing today.
Earhart also introduced blouses with longer shirttails, a feature that was exclusive to men’s fashion at the time. This prevented the shirts from becoming easily untucked with every small movement—exposing women’s skin. In The Quotable Amelia Earhart, Earhart is quoted as saying, “I made up my mind that if the wearers of the shirts I designed for any reason took time out to stand on their heads, there would still be enough shirt to still stay tucked in!”
While the clothing didn’t veer too far from the trends of the ‘30s, their innovative designs spoke to Earhart’s aesthetic. Unconventional materials such as parachute silk and textile from airplane wings were used in some designs, and she gave a nod to her love of aviation with buttons shaped like propellers.
Her clothing was generally medium-priced with the pieces ranging from $30 to $55. With the effects of the Great Depression hitting the country hard, Earhart was budget-conscious. She made her sewing patterns available in Woman’s Home Companion magazine—this way her fans could save money by making the clothes themselves.
Although her clothing line was seen as a way to fund her expeditions, Earhart had dabbled in fashion design even before its release. The aviator designed a two-piece aviation suit for the members of the Ninety-Nines, an organization of women aviators. Built with a strong emphasis on practicality, the suit featured large pockets, loose slacks and a zipper top with interlocking 9s on the breastplate. While the suits were never officially adopted by the Ninety-Nines, they were advertised in Vogue in a two-page spread.
Unfortunately, Earhart’s work in fashion had a tendency to be overlooked, first as part of the Ninety-Nines and again with her fashion line. Even with all her innovation and hard work, Amelia Earhart Fashions was a complete flop. The line disappeared from stores shortly after appearing on shelves, with the line debuting during the Great Depression being largely responsible for its failure.
Earhart’s foray into the fashion world, however, was not a complete bust. In 1934, the renowned pilot was recognized by the Fashion Designers of America as one of the 10 best-dressed women in America.
The whereabouts of most of Earhart’s clothing line are unknown, not unlike the mystery surrounding the location of the aviatrix herself.
Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence premieres Sunday, July 9 at 9/8c on HISTORY.