Fashion Hall of Obscurity – Amelia Earhart

Various views of Earhart in the late 1920s and early 1930s

With few exceptions, the celebrity clothing brands that inundate the market these days are little more than a desperate grab for cash by fading starlets. However, profiting off of one’s fame is not a new trend. Consider Gloria Swanson who tweaked her Sunset Boulevard role into peddling ‘Forever Young’ fashions by Puritan for nearly forty years or Billie Burke, best remembered for playing Glinda ‘The Good Witch of the North’, who tried to recoup her wall street losses in 1929 by turning her name into a brand of pyjamas and sportswear. From Jenny Lynd and Lily Langtry to Tyra Banks and Snooki, society mavens, professional beauties, actresses, singers and ‘famous for no reason’ celebritries have licensed their names on everything from corsets and soap to jeans and fuzzy slippers. So it should come as no surprise that the Aviatrix Amelia Earhart also used her name for a clothing line in 1934.

Earhart became a media sensation in 1928 when she became the first woman to cross the atlantic by air, even if only as a passenger – she didn’t fly the Atlantic solo until 1931. Earhart was fair skinned and freckled with chopped hair and had a penchant for wearing trousers to cover what she thought were her thick ankles. Although willowy thin, Earhart was not considered a beauty at the time – comments were even made in the press that she looked like Charles Lindbergh in drag. To soften her transgendered chic, Amelia was photographed in feminine frocks (usually from the knees up) to suggest she only took on the androgynous look when flying.

Earhart’s manager and husband, publisher George Putnam, looked for ways for Amelia to make more money to fund her passion for flying, which was an expensive endeavour especially in the middle of the Depression. In 1934, Putnam convinced U.S. Rubber Co. to underwrite a collection of 25 garment designs sold under Earhart’s name through selected department stores across the U.S., including Macy’s in New York, and Marshall Field’s in Chicago. How much Earhart was involved with the design of the clothes is unclear although it was commonly reported at the time that she had made her own clothes as a girl. In an interview Amelia stated ” I made up my mind that if the wearers of the shirts I designed for any reason took time out to stand on their heads, there would still be enough shirt to stay tucked in.” and later noted that her styles always included “something characteristic of aviation, a parachute cord or tie or belt, a ball bearing belt buckle, wing bolts and nuts for buttons.” However, beyond these design guidelines and approving final sketches it is unlikely she had much to do with the creation of the collection.

Still from film ‘Amelia’ 2009, costumes by Kasia Walkicka-Maimone, who did an especially good job of recreating clothes taken from famous photo stills of Amelia Earhart. The film almost completely skipped over Earhart’s fashion line in 1934.

The clothes produced under her name were safe interpretations of contemporary sportswear. There was a windbreaker made from Parachute silk with propellor buttons, and a leather trench coat, the dresses made up in washable cotton sold for $30 and suits made up in neutral coloured tweed for $55.00. Sewing patterns of her designs were available through the Woman’s Home Companion magazine for those who could not afford the off-the-rack versions.

The fashion line was not financially successful and folded by the end of the year. However, a line of lightweight luggage intended for air travel that also bore her name continued on after Earhart herself disappeared over the South Pacific in 1937.

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian. He was the founding curator of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, and the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. He has amassed a collection of nearly 8,000 items dating from the mid 17th century to the present, and has written various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.
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