"What makes Geoffrey Beene great? Is it the sophistication of his cut that makes the most bulky fabric seem airborne? The curved lines that give a graceful femininity to clothes without dipping into banality? It is all this but, more important, it is the designer’s unceasing struggle to find new materials and new shapes that flatter a woman’s body.”
Described as cerebral, modernist, and the “architect of American clothing,” designer Geoffrey Beene (1927 – 2004) made an indelible mark on fashion in the 20th century – and his visionary creations influenced how women would dress in the next centennial, too. His journey began as Samuel Albert Bozeman Jr. in Haynesville, Louisiana, where he was born into a family of doctors yet maintained a keen eye for design throughout his childhood. He followed the family tradition and enrolled in medical school at Tulane University – legend has it he sketched Adrian gowns over the figures in his Grey’s Anatomy textbook. Leaving the medical field behind, his family sent him to California to live with an aunt, and a brief stint working with the window displays at I. Magnin in Los Angeles was followed by Traphagan School of Fashion in New York City. However, it was Beene’s time in France that taught him the principles of good design and the art of dressmaking.
Evening gown Image courtesy of Vintage Hamish, Vogue.com
Geoffrey Beene, 1971
Gift of Lenore Greenberg
Beene moved to Paris in 1948 and experienced the fervor caused by Dior’s famed New Look. Yet it was another designer he credits with opening his eyes to the whimsical possibilities of fashion: Elsa Schiaparelli. While apprenticing with couturier Edward Molyneux, he attended Schiaparelli’s collection presentations and was immediately drawn to her innovative aesthetic. “At that moment I had never seen anything but serious clothes, and this had such charm. It set off my mind.” After studying at the Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne and Académie Julian, Beene returned to New York City and set about making a name for himself on Seventh Avenue.
In post-war American fashion, manufacturers still reigned supreme, hiring talented young designers to produce profitable looks – for example, Claire McCardell for Townley Frocks, Rudi Gernreich for Walter Bass, and in 1952, Geoffrey Beene for Harmay. Yet while Beene was eager to experiment with new designs, Harmay only wanted interpretations of the clothes coming out of Paris. He left the brand in 1958 and found more flexibility with manufacturer Teal Traina, but it wasn’t until he opened his eponymous line in 1963 that he truly gained the artistic freedom he desired.