Valentina never suffered a lack of confidence in her taste or in her design skills. She was notorious for giving clients what she thought the needed, not what they requested. In 1952, Life magazine reported that her maxim to clients was "take it or take it," also noting that "a buyer who arrives to be fitted in a red dress may find that Valentina has decided it should be blue."1 For the most part, clients accepted Valentina's imperious dictates, allowing themselves to be dressed as the Russian-born, New York-based couturier felt appropriate. Fortunately for her clients, Valentina believed that clothing should be designed and constructed to last for years, to be discarded only when it was entirely worn out. A 1952 anecdote recounts Valentina's dismay at a client who wanted to purchase a new outfit:"A new street outfit? Ridiculous! What's wrong with the navy one I made you four years ago?"2
Valentina's aesthetic was remarkably minimal, almost severe, though often softened by classically inspired drapery. She preferred solid colors, often paired in striking combinations, like gray and maroon or black and pink. Designs generally lacked additional embellishments like sequins, beading or ribbon, instead relying on a flattering fit and meticulous construction for their visual appeal. The bias cut was a favorite device, as were twisted, gathered, or shirred panels of fabric placed to accentuate the body. She was her own best model, presenting her garments at invite-only showings in her New York salon and frequently wearing her own designs out on the town.
In photographs, Valentina is often pictured wearing a hat, hood or turban. In addition to becoming something of a personal trademark, Valentina offered her clients headwear to coordinate with their Valentina garments. Though Valentina often favored softly draped hoods or turban-like hats, she also designed and wore more structured hats. One favorite style was a small round hat, with a peaked crown and chin strap, similar in shape to the straw hats associated with East Asia. The flat wool Valentina hat pictured below dates from the 1940s. The minimal embellishment, wool rosettes that resemble antennas, hints at Valentina's sly sense of humor and her confidence in her aesthetic.
Throughout the years of Valentina's career, approximately 1928-1957, hats were an essential element of everyday dress. Twentieth-century milliners like Lilly Daché, Mr. John and Sally Victor were widely known, both by fashion insiders and consumers. Just at the moment Valentina retired, hats and headwear were experiencing their last years of widespread usage and popularity. This decline is often attributed to the fact that John F. Kennedy rarely wore a hat. More accurately, it can be attributed to an overall decline in formality, both in dress and culture. As dressing became more and more casual, hats were discarded in favor of the less-formal bareheaded look. Hair styles, rather than hats, became the visual focus.
1 "Performance by Valentina" Life 3 Nov. 1952: 105-108.
2 Quoted in Kohle Yohannan, Valentina: American Couture and the Cult of Celebrity New York: Rizzoli. 2009: 108.