Amelia Earhart’s Fashion Runway: A Passionate Aviator’s Fashion Line

Amelia’s garment label (The Henry Ford.)

People remember Amelia Earhart as an aviator, as the first woman who flew over the Atlantic Ocean. She was an inspiring role model for women in aviation. But very few know that Amelia was also America’s first celebrity designer who had created her own fashion label.

A passion for flying

Amelia was born in Atchison, Kansas on July 24, 1897. She was a tomboy who defied the traditional gender roles. While serving as a Red Cross nurse aide in Toronto, Canada during World War I, she attended a flying exhibition. After the war, she returned to the United States and briefly attended college as a pre-med student. But when she took her first airplane ride in 1920 with the famous pilot Frank Hawks, she professed that she herself had to fly. In 1921, she started flying lessons and later, she purchased her first second-hand airplane, which she nicknamed “the Canary.” In 1922, she flew solo above 14,000 feet, and in 1928, she made her first transatlantic flight with two male pilots. Also in 1928, the women’s magazine Cosmopolitan hired her as an aviation editor.

Partnership with George Putnam

Publisher George Charles Putnam, who later became her manager too, collaborated with her on writing an autobiographical account of her flight. George promoted Amelia’s book through press tours, interviews, product endorsements, and other related venues that provided a source of income. This included lending Amelia’s name to the Baltimore Luggage Company that created a luggage line. The line was produced in 1933 and lasted until the 1970s. As George and Amelia’s collaboration flourished, they fell in love and married in February 1931.

Designing her first flying suit

After flying solo across the Atlantic in 1931, Amelia run short of funds and turned to fashion to finance her flying passion. The idea of a fashion line was inspired by a visit from fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli when she and Amelia discussed functional clothing for active living. Amelia had learned how to sew from a young age, and she made her own clothes because her income as a social worker was limited. So, she carried her sewing skills into her career as a pilot. First, she created a comfortable jumpsuit that she could wear in the cockpit because all flying suits at the time were made with the male figure in mind. Then, she designed a practical female-friendly, two-piece flying suit with interlocking “9s” for the Ninety-Nines, an association of women pilots. However, the suit was never formally adopted.

The Ninety-Nines Flying Suit. (Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.)

Amelia Earhart Fashions debuts

In 1934, she created a fashion line with only a sewing machine, a mannequin, and a seamstress. U.S. Rubber Company manufactured her clothing line under the name Amelia Earhart Fashions. Among the 30 department stores that carried her clothing line was Macy’s in New York, Strawbridge & Clothier of Philadelphia, Marshall Field in Chicago, and The Emporium in San Francisco. Amelia’s brand label featured a thin red line trailed behind a little red airplane and stricken through her name in black.

Unconventional but practical clothing

Amelia’s fashion line included 25 outfits (dresses, skirts, pants, hats, outerwear) that were designed to be stylish, but practical while active. Her designs were influenced not only by her aviation career but also by the activewear trends of that era. However, they were made with unconventional materials and innovations such as these below:

  • The clothes were sold as separates. This innovation allowed women to purchase different sizes tops and bottoms to fit their figure instead of a one-size dress that had to be tailored.
  • The blouses had longer shirt tails to prevent them from coming untucked and exposing women’s skin.
  • Because the collection was launched amid the Great Depression, it was priced moderately, with prices ranging from $30 for a cotton dress to $55 for a tweed jacket.
  • Amelia made her sewing patterns accessible to home sewers for free in Woman’s Home Companion magazine.
  • The clothes were made of washable fabrics such as Grenfell cotton and parachute silk. These fabrics saved on cleaning costs.
  • Every piece of clothing reflected Amelia’s passion for flying. For example, buttons shaped as propellers or belts made from parachute cord.

Amelia Earhart Fashions goes into a tailspin

Despite her hard work, innovations, and promotion, Amelia Earhart Fashions survived only one season before it disappeared from the stores. Due to the economic conditions of the times, buying clothes was not a necessity when thousands of people were unemployed. Also, Amelia was exhausted from promoting and modeling her own designs as well as lecturing and other aviation-related activities. After her collection’s failure, Amelia continued to fly until she vanished in 1937.

Today, some of Amelia’s original designs are on display in the National Air and Space Museum, the Henry Ford Museum, and the Hanford Carnegie Museum, to mention a few. Another home of her survived designs is the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum. In the dining room, several outfits are displayed, all of which were worn by actress Hilary Swank in the 2009 movie Amelia.

Amelia’s surviving original designs. (Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum.)

References

“Amelia Earhart: Using Fashion to Inspire Flight.” Smithsonian: National Air and Space Museum. July 24, 2016.

https://airandspace.si.edu/stories/editorial/amelia-earhart-using-fashion-inspire-flight

Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum. Kansastravel.org. Accessed May 17, 2021. http://www.kansastravel.org/ameliaearhartmuseum.htm

Diliberto, Gioia. “Flights of Fashion: How Amelia Earhart Became America’s First Celebrity Designer.” Huffington Post. May 25, 2011.

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/flights-of-fashion_b_240168

Hall, Mary C. “Amelia Earhart’s Fashion Line: Found at Last.” Huffington Post. December 6, 2017.

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/amelia-earharts-fashion-l_b_341283

Miller, Jeanine Head. “Amelia Earhart: Designing Fashion to Finance Flying.” The Henry Ford. March 5, 2015.

https://www.thehenryford.org/explore/blog/amelia-earhart

Morgan, Thad. “Amelia Earhart’s Other Runway: The Aviator’s Forgotten Fashion Line.” History. August 29, 2018.

https://www.history.com/news/amelia-earharts-other-runway-the-aviators-forgotten-fashion-line#:~:text=In%20order%20to%20ensure%20that,her%20manager)%20turned%20to%20fashion.&text=The%20idea%20for%20Earhart’s%20line,renowned%20fashion%20designer%20Elsa%20Schiaparelli.

Morson, Jenn. “The First Celebrity Fashion Line Was Amelia Earhart’s.” Racked, July 24, 2017. https://www.racked.com/2017/7/24/16000612/amelia-earhart-clothing-line