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Fashion History Lesson: Celebrity Clothing Lines Date Back to the 1800s

A brief look at how the concept of celebrity branding first came to be and why celebrity influence continues to be a dominate force in the fashion industry today.
Jessica Simpson swimwear fashion show, 2007. Photo: Mark Mainz/Getty Images

Jessica Simpson swimwear fashion show, 2007. Photo: Mark Mainz/Getty Images

Welcome to Pop Culture Week! While you can always find us waxing poetic about the hefty overlap between fashion and pop culture, we're dedicating the next five days to the subject of our favorite music, movies, TV, celebrities, books and theater, and how that all intersects with the fashion industry.

It's almost impossible to list all the celebrities who have taken on the role of "designer" over the years, breaking into the fashion market using little more than their famous name and (maybe) a noteworthy sense of style. The consensus among them, it seems, is: What's the point of having a household name if you can't slap it on a label in order to make loads and loads of cash?

In recent years, no one exemplifies turn-your-name-into-branding success better than the Kardashian/Jenner/West clan, although the practice of leveraging one's 15 minutes of fame in hopes of making a lasting profit dates back long before the age of Instagram and reality television. In fact, the practice of using recognizable names to advertise and promote fashionable products has been an integral part of retailing for as long as popular media has existed. In recent history, it has become increasingly common for celebrities to go beyond the roll of spokesperson, choosing to be the faces of their own brands and diversifying their often limited and short-lived careers. Some celebrities, such as Victoria Beckham and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, have even managed to reinvent their careers to become bona-fide designers, making their prior acting or singing careers akin to quaint backstories.

"The idea that anyone can be a designer is now part of the culture," fashion critic Suzy Menkes wrote in T Magazine back in 2012, and the trend definitely hasn't stopped since then. In order to better understand the never-ending appeal of celebrity-designers, we're taking a brief look at how the concept of celebrity fashion lines first came to be, as well as what types of issues these brands pose for non-celebrity designers today.

Pamphlet advertising Irene Castle Corticelli Fashions, 1925. Images: Courtesy of Hagley Museum and Library

Pamphlet advertising Irene Castle Corticelli Fashions, 1925. Images: Courtesy of Hagley Museum and Library

While some sources claim that the celebrity fashion line concept originated in the 1930s, it's possible that their emergence can be traced back to 1850. During that year, a Swedish opera signer named Jenny Lind became a cultural phenomenon in the United States thanks to a mammoth amount of publicity for her first American tour generated by showman P.T. Barnum. In addition to high-grossing ticket sales, records indicate that there was a wide range of Jenny Lind-branded merchandise being sold at the time, including gloves, bonnets, shawls and other fashionable items. While it's unclear how much of a connection the singer herself had to any of these products baring her name, this so-called "Lindomania" is proof that celebrity culture and branding had already reached a whole new level.

Then came the 1900s, when the advent of cinema gave celebrities unprecedented amounts of fame and public admiration. In the 1910s, ballroom dancer and silent film star Irene Castle profited off of this new star-to-consumer connection by starting one of the first "true" celebrity fashion brands, meaning a line of clothing that was both sold under her name and credited to her own design ingenuity. Dubbed the "best-dressed woman in America" at the time, Castle was a household name and had already proven to have a huge influence on Western fashion before starting her line; she was also credited as the woman who popularized the bob haircut.

Starting around 1917, Castle worked with a textile manufacturer named Corticelli Silks to produce a line of high-end, ready-to-wear fashion under the label "Irene Castle Corticelli Fashions." Unlike previous forms of celebrity-linked branding, Castle's role went beyond endorsement: She was promoted as being the actual designer behind the products, with advertisements going so far as to claim that she took a "keen interest in the designing of every one of her gowns." Whether or not that's true, her role as promoter/designer/model helped to create a template for enterprising celebrities that we still see today.

Swimmer Annette Kellerman, date unknown. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Swimmer Annette Kellerman, date unknown. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Entertainers have definitely had a strong influence on the fashion world, but famous athletes have frequently found equal amounts of success in product endorsement and even starting their own clothing lines. Take, for example, the sophisticated French tennis star René Lacoste. In 1927, he broke away from traditional tennis garb by designing short-sleeved shirts in a waffle-knit fabric adorned with his signature crocodile logo. By 1933, he had made a deal with the largest producer of French knitwear to produce the shirts commercially, which can still be found in millions of closets around the world today. [1]

But Lacoste was not the first celebrity athlete to market their own innovative sporting apparel. Annette Kellerman, a professional swimmer and silent film star from Australia, promoted and sold her own line of swimwear based on a trailblazing one-piece swimming costume that she is said to have invented in 1905. Her name and the signature suit design would become famous after news stories broke out about her being arrested for donning such a skintight suit on a beach near Boston in 1907. The scandalous news story brought attention to her unique bathing suits, which were marketed and sold under her name.

The role of celebrities in consumer culture changed forever in the 1930s during Hollywood's Golden Age, and studios were quick to capitalize on the growth of their star power. Many fashion scholars have written about the silver screen's ability to generate consumer desire through imagery, and, in effect, how Hollywood film stars became the most powerful forces in influencing popular fashion throughout this period. While it wasn't too common for actors and actresses to have their own lines of clothing, their images were frequently used for endless amounts of product marketing, particularly in the case of "tie-in" retailing campaigns that promoted film-inspired clothing sold in department stores. [4]

Many years later, silver-screen legend Gloria Swanson would take this type of celebrity-endorsement strategy one step further by releasing her own clothing line in conjunction with The Puritan Dress Company. In 1951, she debuted a collection of dresses labeled "Gloria Swanson by Forever Young", which was meant to play off of her reputation for looking much younger than she was. While it's unlikely that Swanson designed her dress collections herself, she did use herself in marketing for the brand, which, astonishingly, lasted until 1981. [1]

The relationship between celebrities and consumers would become even tighter in the 1960s thanks to new outlets for celebrity news and a growing population of teenagers with disposable incomes. Idolized for her wide-eyed, baby-doll looks, Twiggy became the face of "Youthquake" fashion, so it made perfect sense for the 17-year-old Cockney model to release her own clothing line in 1966. Although the clothing was designed by the model's personal wardrobe stylists, press articles from the time emphasized Twiggy's own involvement in the creative process and the fact that she could veto anything that she didn't like when it came to the final product. Marketed through advertisements and fashion shows featuring the model herself, Twiggy's brightly colored minidresses and tight pantsuits were embraced by thousands of adoring fans who were willing to pay extra for the star's endorsement. In one New York Times article from 1967, an American buyer is quoted as saying, "The prices are out of this world […] but it's the publicity that will do it." [3]

Other British stars followed suit by starting their own clothing labels in the 1960s and 1970s, including Sadie Shaw, Lulu and even the legendary Beatles. In December 1967, the band opened their own clothing store in London under the name Apple Boutique, which was the first business venture for the band outside of entertainment. The shop sold experimental and psychedelic styles that weren't designed by the Beatles themselves, but rather by an artist collective called The Fool. Regardless, the fashion was carefully aligned with the Beatles' image: The musicians, their wives and other members of their entourage would wear the clothes during public appearances.

The 1970s and 1980s ushered in different types of celebrity branding, including more socialites profiting off of their famous names. Railroad heiress Gloria Vanderbilt has been credited as an early developer of designer blue jeans after releasing a range of denim adorned with her own signature on the back pocket. The French countess Jacqueline de Ribes took her reputation as an arbiter of style to a more luxurious level, launching a label of high-end fashion in 1981 at the encouragement of her friend Yves Saint Laurent. It's believed that de Ribes is one of those rare celebrities that is actually responsible for the designs bearing her name, proving that her designer pedigree went beyond her social status.

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[Left]: Kathy Ireland at a Kmart event, 2001. Photo: RJ Capak/Getty; [Right]: Jaclyn Smith at a Kmart opening, 2006. Photo: John M. Heller/Getty

[Left]: Kathy Ireland at a Kmart event, 2001. Photo: RJ Capak/Getty; [Right]: Jaclyn Smith at a Kmart opening, 2006. Photo: John M. Heller/Getty

The ubiquity of celebrity fashion lines at low-cost retailers can probably be traced back to 1970s supermodel Cheryl Tiegs, who launched a signature line of clothing and accessories for Sears back in 1981. "Charlie's Angels" actress Jaclyn Smith found similar success with her women's fashion collection for Kmart, which launched in 1985. Kathy Ireland became yet another supermodel to lend her name and image to a low-cost retailer by "designing" a line of swimwear, activewear, sweaters and other apparel that was sold at Kmart starting in 1993. Unfortunately, the presence and growing popularity of celebrity fashion brands at low-cost retailers became newsworthy in 1996 after a human rights group reported that Kathie Lee Gifford's line of apparel sold at Wal-Mart was being made using sweatshop labor. Normally, this sort of controversy would be directed at CEOs and other business leaders. However, due to the brand's association with such a well-known celebrity, Gifford was forced to go on television to explain that she was not involved in the production of her clothing line, pulling back the curtain and revealing just how little involvement many celebrities have in the creation of their namesake collections. 

Fast forward to the late 1990s, when hip-hop artists and other pop musicians became the leading forces in the market for celebrity-branded clothing. In 1998, rap mogul Jay Z found success in the retail world with the introduction of his clothing brand Rocawear, which quickly became licensed to include everything from baby clothes to women's intimates. However, Jay Z was just following in the footsteps of other hip-hop clothing lines created by groups such as Naughty by Nature and the Wu-Tang Clan, while also paving the way for dozens of other rap-star fashion labels to come. The credibility of musicians-turned-fashion-designers forever changed in 2004 when Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs won the coveted and industry-respected CFDA award for best menswear design under his brand Sean John, helping to legitimize these types of clothing lines.

[Left]: Gwen Stefani backstage at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, 2010. Photo: Andrew H. Walker/Getty; [Right]: Sean Combs backstage at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, 2008. Photo: Joe Kohen/Getty

[Left]: Gwen Stefani backstage at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, 2010. Photo: Andrew H. Walker/Getty; [Right]: Sean Combs backstage at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, 2008. Photo: Joe Kohen/Getty

Madonna, Drake, Jennifer Lopez, Kanye West, Mandy Moore, Outkast, Justin Timberlake, Pharrell Williams, Beyoncé, Nelly, Avril Lavigne, Eminem… the list of musicians that have debuted their own clothing lines over the past two decades seems endless. And unfortunately, the list of those that were short-lived is nearly as long. However, Gwen Stefani and Jessica Simpson have had enjoyed enduring success with their respective clothing and accessory lines, which can probably be credited to their skilled business teams and relatively squeaky-clean reputations.

While this phenomenon has benefitted many an actress and musician, it's also important to question how it's affected non-celebrity designers without a famous name to leverage.

In 2007, Vera Wang admitted to the New York Times that she thought, "Celebrities have made it harder for real designers." It's also no secret that a young designer's chances of surviving in the fashion business today are slim to none, even with years of prestigious design education and innate talent. Meanwhile, celebrities are often able to create high-grossing clothing brands under their own names by calling upon the talent and hard work of unknown employees, having their clothing lines featured in magazines and sold at department stores in less time than it usually takes for a "true" designer to land a retail contract. Even when a line is connected to a celebrity who is considered a veritable style icon, whether it be Sarah Jessica Parker's own brand or Kate Moss's collaboration with Topshop, it doesn't always feel that the playing ground is equal.

Regardless of their level of merit, celebrity fashion lines are able to offer consumers something that can't be obtained through most traditional fashion brands: the ability to replicate or inhabit the "essence" of a celebrity that they admire. [2] Clothing and accessories that are (supposedly) designed and marketed by celebrities are like real, physical pieces of a celebrity lifestyle that previously felt inaccessible to the average person. The concept is also evolving to encompass a variety of formats and business models; right now, merch seems to be gaining the most speed, and the definition of "celebrity" is ever-changing thanks to social media.

For better or worse, these licensed fashion brands will continue to proliferate for as long as consumers want emulate the lives of celebrities — even if that means paying $179 for a pair of sweatpants.

The author would like to thank the members of the group 'Fashion Historians Unite!' for sharing their knowledge and so many wonderful examples of celebrity fashion branding throughout history.

Sources not linked:

[1] Agins, Teri. Hijacking the Runway: How Celebrities Are Stealing the Spotlight from Fashion Designers. New York: Avery, 2014.

[2] Barron, Lee. “The Habitus of Elizabeth Hurley: Celebrity, Fashion, and Identity Branding.” Fashion Theory, 11:4, 2007: 443-461.

[3] Bender, Marilyn. “Buyers Latch Onto the Twiggy Boom.” New York Times. March 29, 1967.

[4] Gibson, Pamela Church. “Film Stars as Fashion Icons” in Fashion and Celebrity Culture. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2012.

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