It would be an understatement to say that the Covid-19 pandemic has put a wrench in designers’ fashion week plans, here in the states and abroad. As we approach what would typically be the Fall 2021 show season, the schedule is less clearly defined than ever. Facing an array of challenges and constraints — economic and otherwise — designers are choosing when, where and how to show new designs (if at all) with little regard to a calendar that was once seen as a bible of sorts.
In response to the pandemic and other fundamental changes that the industry — and the world — have undergone in recent years, the CFDA announced that it would rename the schedule the “American Collections Calendar.” Instead of covering only New York events, it will encompass all American designers, regardless of location or collection release date. This reimagined approached was released on Thursday.
In the greater historical context of the fashion calendar, though, it’s only the latest of many changes that have taken place in its nearly 80 years of existence. And while the name is new, the concept is actually not.
Ruth Finley famously invented the Fashion Calendar in the 1940s, and oversaw it until 2014, when she sold it to the CFDA. All of those decades’ worth of fashion calendars are now archived at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT)’s Gladys Marcus Library as part of its Special Collections and College Archives (SPARC).
While the library is still in the process of raising the funds necessary to digitize the archives for public viewing, we were able to get a sneak peek at some older iterations of the calendar and speak with Karen Trivette, associate professor-librarian, head of special collections and college archives at FIT, about the calendar’s evolution.
The exact date of the Fashion Calendar’s debut is still unclear, according to Trivette, but they have editions dating back to 1941. The most marked difference between the calendar’s early days and more modern versions is that they encompassed events pretty far outside the realm of fashion (and biannual, seasonal fashion weeks). In addition to fashion presentations, the Nov. 15, 1942 edition, for instance, listed a “How to Carve a Turkey” event at now-defunct department store Wanamaker’s; the opening of the toy floor at Abraham & Strauss, another since-closed department store; and Ivy League football games.
“In the early years you had a much more fleshed out narrative, you had not only fashion related news and goings-on information, but you even had information that would follow where the fashionable people might be,” says Trivette. “That’s what makes the calendar so fascinating, it’s really a glimpse into the human experience.”
Not necessarily everyone’s human experience, though: Only those with the time for a certain amount of leisure, or who worked in these industries, would likely be able to attend these events encompassing retail, art, film and fashion. “It allows a certain socioeconomic stratum to plan its life,” Trivette notes. “[Finley] was desperate to make order out of chaos; she couldn’t be in two places at one time so she certainly understood no one else could either.”
The fashion events that were listed in those early years looked quite different from the ones we’re accustomed to today. For one, there wasn’t a clearly delineated “fashion week” as we know it, with events spread throughout the year. You also don’t see a lot of designer names. Instead, you might see a sort of expo for “Cloak and Suit Manufacturers,” which would include showings at various showrooms by various cloak and suit companies. Or, retailers would host fashion shows for press and/or consumers. In August of 1942, at now-defunct department store Franklin Simon & Co., there was a back-to-school fashion show. Around the same time, the now-closed Traphagen School of Fashion hosted a three-week exhibit of “exotic chests.”
According to Trivette, as the fashion industry in New York grew, fashion events came to dominate the schedule. In 1943, famed New York publicist and CFDA founder Eleanor Lambert launched Press Week, which became a semiannual event that eventually evolved into what we now know as New York Fashion Week. There were still fashion-related events throughout the year, though.
Trivette points to 1950 as a year when much more real estate seemed to be dedicated to the showing of new fashion collections than even a couple of years prior. A Jan. 16, 1950 edition lists showings of spring collections by Elizabeth Arden (designed by Castillo) and Saks Fifth Avenue. There’s also The Sportswear Guild’s Opening of Summer Lines, which saw various manufacturers showing on consecutive dates at their showrooms. Interestingly, given the calendar’s recent update, there’s also a brief schedule of the Paris couture shows, as well as an apparel show to be held in Chicago. Trivette notes that in 1972, Finley also began a separate monthly subscription publication called Fashion International, which featured events and news from outside the U.S. and ran until about 2008.
As industry activity increased, the publication began looking more like a grid calendar than a list with descriptions of each event. “It started out purely textural narrative, but then you have so much congestion of activity you have to control it in a grid,” says Trivette. The frequency of publication also evolved: Initially, Finley put it out weekly, but reduced the frequency to biweekly in January 1982 to reduce redundancies and to save time and money on production.
The first official grid of centralized fashion shows that looks the most familiar to what exists today debuted in September of 1993, when the CFDA hosted 7th on Sixth for press and buyers. It features dates across the top and times down the far left column, with familiar names like Calvin Klein, Bill Blass, Donna Karan, Oscar de la Renta and Cynthia Rowley.
For years after that, Finley continued to bring order to an increasingly busy New York Fashion Week, miraculously finding room for new names, ideally without upsetting the delicate egos of the older ones. In the years since the CFDA took control of the calendar, it’s faced criticism from all sides for being too packed and chaotic, or for the timing no longer making sense in relation to retail delivery timelines. Over the past couple of years, several marquee names have taken themselves off the official schedule, choosing instead to show in Europe or at a different time of year (or not at all). Things seemingly came to a head as Covid-19 hit in 2020, with several groups of designers and executives calling for fundamental changes to how fashion presents and consumes new collections and dubbing the current calendar outdated.
Since then, the biggest change we’ve seen is the aforementioned renaming by CFDA Chairman Tom Ford. Meanwhile, designers are dropping new collections when and how they see fit, suggesting that the relevance of such a calendar is waning. We’ll likely be seeing new Fall 2021 offerings as late as, well, fall of 2021.
“The day on the calendar and the time of day matter as little as they ever have,” Trivette argues.
Clearly, the evolution of the Fashion Calendar is still ongoing — if it survives at all.
See more old Fashion Calendar images in the gallery below.