Bonnie Cashin in Detail
“Simplicity is the hardest thing to explain and not many people can understand it. It requires an understanding of texture, color, scale—and it is the simplicity which makes a design good.”
– Bonnie Cashin1
Bonnie Cashin (1908–2000) was a highly influential and original American fashion designer whose enduring impact on the industry continues to this day. Among the first designers to popularize sportswear, Cashin created informal yet sophisticated garments that were functional, seasonless, and collectible. Her unfussy and innovative creations were aimed at women on the go. Cashin’s love of travel and the outdoors was a major inspiration for her work, which was characterized by clean lines, vivid colors, textured fabrics, and leather details. Her approach focused on creating practical clothing with high quality materials that was not merely trendy, but timeless.
Cashin, as well as her longtime manufacturing partner Philip Sills, was conscious of her significance and legacy. They donated some of her designs to The Met, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and other institutions throughout her career.
The Costume Institute’s collection boasts two donated evening skirts that showcase Cashin’s mid-1950s vision of casual elegance (2009.300.7236 and 2009.300.8024). These ballerina-length skirts—shorter in front for ease of movement—feature cascading drapery at the back and narrow, color-coordinated suede ties that accentuate the waist. They are nearly identical in their cut and are expertly patterned from single lengths of fabric with minimal seams. The waistlines of these skirts are “V”-shaped and curve up dramatically at the sides, with carefully placed darts stiffened with boning to create a flattering fit that hugs the torso.
While the two skirts share a similar design, their materials set them apart. The first skirt is made of a vibrant orange, pink, and red slubbed silk and synthetic textile from Boris Kroll. This mediumweight fabric drapes gracefully in gentle folds, creating a sense of fluidity and movement. In contrast, the second skirt is made of a thicker fabric by Dorothy Liebes, which combines cotton, wool, synthetic fibers, and metallic strips in tones of green, beige, and gold. Its chenille yarns and chunky weave create a more substantial, structured look that falls more heavily, providing a sense of weight and texture.
Each skirt also has distinct finishing details. The green skirt, which has substantial body, was finished simply by binding the edges of the seam allowances at waist, hem, and center front with shantung bias tape. A waist stay, approximately one inch wide and encased with bias-cut shantung, was tacked to the boning casings. Its back corners were covered by the waistline binding tape to create a neat and secure finish.
In contrast, the orange fabric, with its looser drape, required more stiffening at the waist and hem. The curves above the waist were lined with bias-cut shantung and interlined with canvas cut on grain to provide additional structure. The shantung-encased waist stay was tacked to the boning casings as in the green skirt but was left loose at the back. It also closes with its own metal hooks and thread eyes instead of being integrated into the waistline finish. The hem on this skirt is much deeper than the other and is tucked at intervals to take up fullness where the hem curves.
These subtle differences in finishing illustrate Cashin’s attention to quality of construction and materials. By using different techniques for each fabric type, she was able to create skirts that not only looked beautiful but also fit and functioned impeccably. These deceptively simple pieces are a testament to Cashin’s skillful design approach and her ability to create chic, yet comfortable attire for the modern woman.
From July 7, 2023 through February 4, 2024, the green evening skirt (2009.300.8024) will be on view at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, just up Fifth Avenue from The Met. This skirt will be displayed as part of the exhibition, A Dark, A Light, A Bright: The Designs of Dorothy Liebes, which explores the career of Dorothy Liebes, the fabric’s designer.
 Paul Hanenberg and Etta Froio, “Cashin’ in on Cashin,” Women’s Wear Daily, May 15, 1962, 32.