Professionals as Professors: Fashion before 1950

The Fashion Design program at Parsons has always been known for its professors and mentors, and the professors have always been industry professionals who bring the students outside of the classroom and into the real world. Before 1952 some of the most notable and iconic professors and mentors were Gilbert Adrian, Claire McCardell, and Christian Dior. Not only did these great fashion designers help their students develop a better understanding of the business and design, they also added to Parsons’ growing reputation in the industry.

Some students graduated and returned to Parsons to become mentors, such as Gilbert Adrian. When Adrian graduated from Parsons he began working in Los Angeles making costumes for famous movies like the Wizard of Oz and Marie Antoinette. Claire McCardell was another famous returning student. She was heavily influenced by the time she spent abroad in Parsons Paris, and the Parisian influence can be seen in her designs. She became famous after her graduating show, where her innovative designs of women’s separates allowed women to have a greater variety of clothing in their wardrobe. Her clothing designs allowed a feeling of ease while also being frugal by using almost every scrap of fabric.

Another great moment in the history of professors at Parsons was when Christian Dior came to mentor the seniors at the school in 1951. Not only does this show that the students were at a high caliber, it also shows that the school had developed good connections in the industry and a strong reputation to warrant the visit of such a master designer. Something interesting that they did between the 1930s and 1950s was to invite a well-established designer, most of the times a Parsons graduate, to come and mentor the graduating class. These mentors worked one-on-one with students, helping them develop a vocabulary through their designs and giving them critiques on their work. This interaction between students and mentors is one of the reasons why Parsons students were considered the best — because they had these undeniably good experiences in the industry before even graduating.

Parsons Fashion Design before the 1950s helped its students to develop into the great designers they became through disciplining them to embrace both art and design history, while also thinking about the future and the “American sensibility.” Having important designers of their era like Adrian, Claire McCardell, and Christian Dior challenged students to think about what important changes needed to happen in their designs to make them current and important to their time period.

For more in the New School Archives, see the Parsons School of Design Fashion Design Department records.