On this day in 1922, American fashion designer Bill Blass was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana. As a young boy, he was entranced by the glamorous looks and lifestyles of Hollywood film stars such as Marlene Dietrich and fellow Fort Wayne native Carole Lombard. After graduating from high school, Blass moved to New York in 1940 to pursue design opportunities, including studying at the McDowell School of Fashion. In 1943, he enlisted in the army and participated in 21 engagements, including the Battle of the Bulge.
After World War II, Blass returned to New York, first designing for the clothing manufacturer Anna Miller before moving to Maurice Rentner, where his designs were so successful that by the 1960s, the garment labels read “Bill Blass for Maurice Rentner.” By 1970, he bought out the company and changed the name to Bill Blass Ltd. His place in fashion history was cemented in 1973 when he was invited to participate in the Battle of Versailles, friendly fashion competition pitting five American designers (Blass, along with Oscar de la Renta, Stephen Burrows, Halston, and Anne Klein) against five French ones (Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, Marc Bohan of Dior, and Hubert de Givenchy).
Influenced by the chic style and romance of Hollywood as well as the simplicity and structure of menswear, Bill Blass’s designs were classic but with a modern twist and stylish without sacrificing comfort. When asked which designers informed his own sensibility, Blass has named Balenciaga and Charles James, each a master of cut, construction, and line. The simplicity and consistent high style of his fashions earned him the longest continuing success of any American designer. Blass’s clientele, whom he called his “gals,” included First Ladies, socialites, and movie stars, but despite reaching the heights of NYC society and the fashion world, he joked that “my claim to immortality will be my meatloaf.”
Blass was honored with the CFDA’s Lifetime Achievement Award (1987) and became the first to ever receive their Humanitarian Leadership Award (1996). Blass donated a significant amount to the New York Public Library in 1994, and the Public Catalog Room of the Central Research Library was renamed after him. The costume collection at the Chicago History Museum has more than 100 examples of his work with designs for both men and women. In 1997, the Costume Council of the Chicago History Museum presented Blass their Designer of Excellence Award. Blass died in 2002 at age 79 from cancer.
See more photographs of Blass and examples of his work in the CHM costume collection:
Chicago History Museum
The Fort Wayne Museum (fwmoa.org) is celebrating him with an exhibition from today on. If anyone goes, report in!!