Harry Collins The Master Fashion Designer The World Has Forgotten
Posted on 23 May 2018
"But when you're gone, who remembers your name? Who keeps your flame? Who tells your story?"
Lin-Manuel Miranda - Hamilton
We recently acquired this vintage dress from a Northwest estate that had some exceptional pieces of turn of the century and early 1900's - 1920's clothing and accessories. When we saw the label, we knew we had found a rare treasure.The details were so fine and we had never seen this quality of work in what would have been considered a "day dress", especially from that era. It was obviously a dress deserving of the Harry Collins label.
But, who was Harry Collins? Lady Astor and Matilda Dodge were two of his clients and he was considered the creme de la creme of American designers during the Edwardian and Art Deco eras. A well known, equally admired contemporary of Lucille, his designs were recognized as America's version of the work of famous French designers of the time including the Callot sisters, Lanvin, Poiret, Doucet and Paquin. He played a huge role in defining the American style of the 1910s and 1920s. So, if he was so big at the time, why haven't most of you heard of him? That's a good question.
Today, while wondering how to write this post, Katie remarked that Harry Collins is our Alexander Hamilton. (We even thought, for a brief second, of re-writing Lin Manuel Miranda's lyrics to fit the designer's life - it was a quick fail). But when you think about it, there are some similarities between the two men. Like Hamilton, Harry Collins helped write a chapter in American history. Okay, maybe he didn't help form a democracy, or create the treasury, but he did create a look for American women. His contribution to the fashion world was well respected and admired in the day. Like Hamilton, Harry Collins wasn't given the credit he deserved from the institution to which he dedicated his life. But, unlike Hamilton, Harry Collins is only known today to a small group people - mainly fashion historians and collectors.
1919 Evening Dress by Harry Collins owned by Matilda Dodge from The Meadow Brook Hall collection
I have a soft spot for forgotten fashion designers. Vera West, Clare Potter, and Sylvia Pedlar of Iris Lingerie are just a few of the talented designers that I believe never received the recognition they deserved. So naturally, when I wanted to write about Harry Collins I developed a soft spot when I discovered that no one seems to mention him anymore. The more I looked, the further down the rabbit hole I fell. For someone obviously so well known during his career, there is virtually no information about his life. Other than a few grainy images from newspaper archives, there seem to be no images of the man himself.
In terms of his famous dresses, other than this one we have listed HERE, they all simply seem to have vanished! We could only find only a couple of dresses that had already sold online. I believe the red dress was sold by Past Perfect Vintage and the Orange dress was sold by Antique Dress.
There are only a few books that mention his name, and a handful of websites that make any reference to his career.
Dress designed by Harry Collins in peach silk chiffon with turquoise, chartreuse, and pink silk ribbon and metallic trim for Mrs. Francis Garven (Mabel Brady) 1921The Philadelphia Museum of Art
Philip A. de László Portrait of Mrs. Francis P. Garvan (wearing the Harry Collins dress designed or her) and Her Four Children
Florence Harding's dress, featuring pearlized sequins on tulle and blue velvet ribbon trimmed with rhinestones.
There are a couple of references to Collins on some fashion museum websites and in other places in regard to the dress he designed for first lady Florence Harding in 1921. Though he was a Broadway and Hollywood film costume designer, he never achieved acknowledgment for his work.
Elsie Lawson, Emilie Lea and Marguerite St. Claire in Gloriana, the cast of Oh My Dear in 1920 at The Princess Theatre and Miriam Collins in Oh My Dear 1920
Vivienne Segal and Carl Randall in Oh Lady! Lady! 1918
Yansci Dolly of the Dolly Sisters in Harry Collins designs
But, if you spend days pouring through archives of vintage fashion magazines, as someone I know just did, you will find his many fashion articles and numerous clothing advertisements. You only have to look at the sheer volume of 1920's Harry Collins advertisements to get an idea of how prolific his design career was during the teens and 20's.
The US Patent office has a few of his patents on file.
Harry Collins Undergarment Patent 1942
1923, Harry Collins published a fashion book called The ABC of Dress. That is something that actually IS available online.
In that book, you can learn a lot about what Harry Collins thought about fashion. He believed, for example, that the term "chic" really just referred to "line" as in the line, or posture of your body. "..grace and charm are a result of training the body to express one's mind with sincerity and poise." I love that.
But what about the man himself? What can we find out about his life? You will find conflicting information about the year he died - one source says 1958 and another says 1980. And after the patents applied for in the 1940's, he virtually disappears. After spending many hours on genealogical websites, (I already explained that I'm obsessive), I discovered that he married Hattie Manluck in Manhattan on March 19, 1913, and he had 2 children.
The plot thickens. This is where I found that Harry Collins, like Alexander Hamilton was touched by controversy, although more indirectly. One of his children, Richard Collins, was a famous Hollywood screenwriter who was blacklisted for his association with the Communist party during the McArthur era. I found the following from his obituary in the LA times regarding that period:
"He borrowed money to open a dress-cutting business but couldn't make a go of it. He was by then caring for his aged parents and raising two children from his marriage to actress Dorothy Comingore, best known for portraying the character modeled on William Randolph Hearst's mistress Marion Davies in "Citizen Kane." He and Comingore were divorced in 1945. She lost custody of their children in a highly publicized 1952 court hearing, at which she was accused of being an unfit mother because of alcoholism and her Communist leanings. A few weeks earlier, she had been an unfriendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee. (In a 1991 movie about the blacklist era, "Guilty by Suspicion," the character of an emotionally troubled actress hounded by the committee was inspired by Comingore.)"
Hoping to work in the film industry again, in 1951, testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He named more than 20 colleagues and friends in the film industry as belonging to or sympathizing with the Communist party. Though his career was once again intact, a cloud hung over his life from that testimony.
So from Richard's obituary, we know that Harry Collins has two living grandchildren; Michael Collins and Judith Collins Collard. I would love to get into contact with them and ask them about their grandfather. So Michael and Judith, if you find this blog - please contact me! I believe your grandfather, like Alexander Hamilton, needs someone to keep his flame and tell his story.
There is a woman named Nora Ellen Carleson who has written aboutHarry Collins - I have only read an exerpt but here is the information on where it is now available if you are interested in learning more about this fascinating designer!
Citation: Nora Ellen Carleson, “Harry Collins and the Birth of American Fashion, 1910–1950,” The Journal of Dress History, Volume 2, Issue 2, Summer 2018, The Association of Dress Historians, London, England, pp 2–14.