Harry Collins and the American Art of Dress: 1884-1980




Carleson, Nora Ellen

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



Today when one hears the name Harry Collins very little comes to mind. However, from 1910 to 1950 Harry Collins was a name known across the United States. To simple housewives, first ladies, and stars of the stage and screen that sported his designs, Harry Collins was synonymous with American fashion. A New York designer, author, and philanthropist, Collins was both prolific and celebrated during his nearly fifty-year career as a “dress artist.” His peers included famous turn-of-the-century designers such as Poiret and Lucile as well as later well-known designers such as Adrian, Hattie Carnegie, and Clarie McCardell. Collins often showed alongside these illustrious stars of the fashion world and was seen as their equal. Not only was Harry Collins a designer for the stage, screen, and shop, however, he was also a creative author, critic, and inventor who sought to bring an art to the dress of the everyday American woman. Unlike many of his peers, Collins reached out to a broader audience publishing pieces in Ladies Home Journal and Modern Priscilla as well as a popular book used in Home Economics courses, The ABC of Dress (1923.) To date, Collins has attracted little scholarly attention. This thesis will explore Collins’s multi-faceted career in order to uncover his important role in creating an American style of dress in the early 1910s and 1920s, his most prolific period of design. Decades before the infamous Dorothy Shaver and New York designers of the 1930s and 1940s sought to establish an American fashion, Collins articulated and promoted an American style intended to surpass and sublimate the Parisian monopoly on fashion. As Collins articulated it, the American style was intrinsically linked with a burgeoning national identity. Collins even supported his country and its soldiers through philanthropic works during both World War I and World War II in the realm of fashion, further cementing the connection between the American style and patriotism. While costume historians have heralded the birth of an American style in post WWII America, the first wave of American critics and designers who sought an American mode of dress in the decades just before and after WWI remain understudied. Establishing Collins’ contribution to the formation of an American way of dress in this earlier period helps to illuminate the beginnings of this important movement in design history. Because Collins uniquely bridged the gap between the worlds of high fashion and that of the everyday American woman, he provides an ideal case study to examine the complex intersection of elite patronage and mass culture that enabled American fashion designers to create a new and unique style. Through careful examination of Collins’ identified dresses and his sketches, as well as study of the rich treasure trove of his patents, marketing materials, and copious writings in magazines, newspapers, and trade journals which expressed his ideals, this thesis will construct a greater understanding of Collins’s significant contribution to an American style of dress in greater context to the fashion world in the twentieth-century.



Harry Collins, House of Collins, American fashion, Art of dress, Florence Harding