The ABC's of Vintage Fashion: B is For Bill Blass
Here's the thing about vintage fashion: a lot of it is collectible, but far less is actually wearable.
Admittedly, it's not the functionality of a garment that gets my attention from across the room. I don't run towards a dress at a trade show thinking, "That'll be perfect for a day in the rain," or "This is exactly the kind of dress that I can wear at a work cocktail party."
However, I've noticed that most of my flashier vintage pieces hardly ever get worn. Yes, partly it's because I like to save them for special occasions and because I often buy with preservation in mind.
But it's mostly because the perfect conditions to wear some of those pieces -- the right event, the right weather and temperature, the right crowd, the level of comfort and movability that I need -- rarely every come together all at once.
I've certainly never shied away from wearing some great vintage pieces to the grocery store; (as I always say, if they're isn't an occasion, make one) but my daily life outside of Instagram and events doesn't necessarily call for rhinestones, feathers, and other statement-making embellishments and details.
Enter Bill Blass, the perfect combination of form and function -- a combination that never goes out of style.
I've found that some of the pieces I end up wearing the most frequently are Blass, and that I always get compliments when I do. I've also found that, despite the number of times I wear them, they always seem to hold up.
We can thank Blass's excellent tailoring and attention to detail for that.
Born in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1922, Blass frequently spoke about the influence that the American Midwest had not only on him personally, but also on the way that he chose to design.
He wanted clothes to be wearable and even inconspicuous -- the types of styles that made first look at the woman wearing them instead of the the clothes themselves.
Asked to sum up how he would describe his work, Blass said he felt his clothing was "appropriate.
Blass especially idolized Levi Strauss and the way that jeans had revolutionized fashion and had lasting a social impact at the same time.
A design from Blass's Spring 1971 Collection
He came to New York at 17 years of age to go to the McDowell School of Fashion design. While there, he quickly found himself relegated to the dreaded "back rooms" of Seventh Avenue.
Blass felt there was a social stigma surrounding being a fashion designer and, in his early years, told people that he worked in advertising. He won Mademoiselle's Design for Living award -- the first man ever to do so.
However, Blass was tired of making clothes with someone else's name on the label. He wanted to strike out on his own...but World War Two had other ideas.
Blass enlisted in the Army, where he worked for the 603rd Camouflage Battalion (also known as the Ghost Army) responsible for tricking the Germans regarding the location of Allied tanks and stations.
He returned home in 1945 re-entered the world of fashion.
He worked with big names like Anne Klein, Anna Miller, and Maurice Renter.
An early Blass design for Anna Miller
In 1970, his dreams of owning his own house finally came true. He bought out out Maurice Rentner, Ltd, and re-named it Bill Blass, Ltd.
Blass saw success quite quickly, and was the first designer to make a million dollars at a trunk show. He was also one of the earliest American designers to offer both men's and women's fashion, and he was committed to creating womenswear that had the same attention to detail and functionality that was usually restricted to menswear.
Still, he embraced femininity and enjoyed bold, bright colors and patterns. He was especially known for his mastery of the bias sheath, and famously maintained that "The little black dress always looks better in white."
His earlier training meant that he used couture tailoring techniques like self-finished darts and self-enclosed welt seaming on his clothing, which is what made them especially flattering -- and covetable.
Still, he appreciated simplicity more than most designers of his time -- and certainly of today.
He felt that to have too much on and to put an obvious amount of thought and effort into dressing was predictable, unrealistic, and overdone.
He designed clothes that were meant to be worn and lived in, and was perhaps one of the inventors of the idea of "effortless" fashion -- which he referred to as a "certain nochalance" . (Something we can both love and hate him for.)
Speaking on the quintessential Blass woman, he said, "...She wasn't a clothes horse; she wasn't a woman who spent all her waking hours in fitting rooms."
Soon, he cemented his reputation as one of the Founding Fathers of "American Chic" fashion
Said Tom Ford:
"Bill Blass did for fashion in America what Yves Saint Laurent did for fashion in France. Bill Blass gave American women their uniform -- modern, clean, chic clothes that are timeless."
Looking at my personal collection of Bill Blass vintage clothing, I have to say that I agree.
A wilder design from Blass's Spring 1968 collection
Of course, Blass quickly racked up the gaggle of female admirers and the cult of personality akin to the Halstonettes. He was seen as the perfect definition of a gentlemen, much like fellow designer Oscar de la Renta.
Interestingly, de la Renta and Blass had a similar clientele, which meant that they were often competitors -- though both have said this sense of competition never affected their friendship.
Among his friends, Blass counted Gloria Vanderbilt, Brooke Astor, Happy Rockefeller, and many other of the biggest names in socialite history. He also shared a friendship with Diana Vreeland and numerous models of the moment like Lauren Hutton and Verushka.
Gloria Vanderbilt in one of Blass's designs, 1969.
He was the winner of no less than three Coty Awards and was given the Council of Fashion Designers of America's Lifetime Achievement Award.
He was a huge supporter of the New York Public Library, as well as funding to address the AIDS crisis. In fact, he was one of the first major donors to truly pay attention to AIDS and recognize it for the public health crisis that it was.
Mr. Blass retired in the Spring of 2000 and passed away two years later.
A Bill Blass suit based on the paintings of Gustav Klimt, Fall 1994
All photos in this post are from the above-mentioned book.