History 301: Fashion designer famous everywhere but hometown

This essay originally appeared in the February 2020 edition of Urban Times.

By Connie Zeigler, Contributing editor

When you think of famous fashion designers, your mind likely wanders to Paris, New York, Milan. Does it wander back to Indianapolis? Probably not. The beginnings of a movement have a few forward-thinkers wondering if this is a city where fashion design has a place. Those fashionistas might benefit from taking a look back at one of the nation’s most acclaimed designers ever, Norman Norell, who hailed from Indianapolis.

It’s surprising that Norell’s name, recognized internationally for his contributions to the world of fashion, is not well-remembered in his hometown. On the other hand, the majority of us who grew up here shopped at malls, rather than on Seventh Avenue. So we may be excused our general lack of knowledge about one of fashion’s greats and our nearly universal exposure to the much more commonplace stores that populated area malls. Stores such as the one started by Norell’s father – Harry Levinson.

This Traina-Norell design appeared in an October 1949 advertisement for L.S. Ayres.
-Image courtesy Thomas Brown

Norman David Levinson was born in Noblesville in 1900. His father, Harry, opened a men’s hat store in Indianapolis and moved the family to the big city in 1905 when Norman was five.

The Indianapolis City Directory shows that by 1914, the family business had expanded to three locations in Downtown Indianapolis. Success meant that Levinson could afford to move his brood to the upscale suburbs and the impressive home they occupied by then at 4160 North Pennsylvania St.

As soon as Norman was old enough, he began working at his father’s business, which eventually expanded into the men’s clothing store, Harry Levinson and Co. But despite a good opportunity to be successful in men’s clothing, Indianapolis was not big enough to hold the young Norman. He was determined to make a name for himself and he did so literally. Dropping his surname, Levinson, he took the moniker, Norman Norell. Nearly every book and article on Norell explains the source of his new name: “Nor for Norman, L for Levinson and another L for Looks.”

By the 1920s, the dark-haired, lanky Norell was becoming known for more than his looks. After studying at both the Parsons School of Design and the Pratt Institute in New York, he took a job at Astoria Studio at Paramount Pictures. According to the book, “The Great Fashion Designers,” Norell designed Gloria Swanson’s costumes for the film, “Zaza,” and was responsible for Rudolph Valentino’s hotness in “The Sainted Devil.”

Eventually, the studio closed and Norell moved on to other work. He created costumes for several Broadway musicals and then began designing for the first time for a dress manufacturer named Charles Armour.

Norell got a big break when designer Hattie Carnegie hired him in 1928. Carnegie, as most American fashion designers, made affordable versions of Paris designs. It’s likely that some of Norell’s knock-offs for Carnegie found their way back home to Indianapolis, selling at department stores such as Block’s and L. S. Ayres.

Norell worked for Carnegie for more than a decade until a rift over a dress design finally prompted him to move on. Joining forces with clothing manufacturer Anthony (or Antony) Traina, the partnership finally put Norell’s name onto the fashions he designed. Traina-Norell brought precision fit and a full collection, rather than the typical assortment of separates, to the American ready-to-wear market.

Bernadine Morris, the senior fashion editor for The New York Times, loved Norell’s work at Traina-Norell and wrote that she tried to buy as much of his line as she could afford. She later claimed in his obituary that he made “Seventh Avenue the rival of Paris.”

Norell’s style was classic, simple and posh. He liked simple necklines, menswear touches and sailor dresses. His work for Traina-Norell, although ready-to-wear, was deftly constructed and timeless, each piece typically built entirely by one person. In 1943, Norman Norell was the first American designer to win the American Fashion Critics Coty Award.

In 1956, a full-color spread in “Life Magazine” touted Norell as the man “generally regarded in the fashion industry as America’s top designer.” A few years later, in 1960, his partner, Traina, retired and the design business was finally operating under one name alone. “Norell” became the label of choice for the fashionable and the famous. Dinah Shore, Lauren Bacall, Babe Paley and Lena Horne proudly sported Norells.

In the 1960s, when fashion took a turn toward the psychedelic, Norell stayed the course with great looking clothes that managed to be both trend-setting and classy. A short coat made entirely of silk organza flowers in dark pinks and stark white is a standout from this period in the collection of the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles. Sleek, body-hugging sequined gowns, which moved like liquid snakeskin, flowed from the pen of Norell during this period, covering the pages of style magazines and the bodies of models and movie stars.

Norell was an unassuming man and not known for the artistic tantrums found elsewhere in the fashion world. Still, he wasn’t afraid to use his reputation to make a point. He made headlines in 1963 for returning the Coty award that he won again that year. He was peevish because one of the other winners was Rudi Gernreich, the avant garde designer of the topless swimsuit.

Norell’s timeless designs remained popular right up to the time of his death in 1972 and beyond. Sadly he had a stroke the day before the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s opening of a retrospective of his work and died a few days later, having never seen it.

Although he may not yet be famous in his hometown, Norell is still a sought-after name in vintage fashion. The Huffington Post reported that Michelle Obama wore a Norell to a White House Christmas event in 2010. Norman Norell is a fine inspiration for aspiring Indiana fashion designers. Even if they grew up wearing Harry Levinson. 

Connie Zeigler has a master’s degree in history. She enjoys digging up a surprising, forgotten story and sharing her pirate’s booty with Urban Times readers.