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10/23/2009 09:45 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Flights of Fashion: How Amelia Earhart Became America's First Celebrity Designer (PHOTOS)

Editor's note: In honor of today's release of Fox Searchlight's "Amelia," we're re-publishing this post. It originally ran on July 20th.

Unlike aviators lost in the sky, fashions always come back. Among the styles recently returned from the dead are micro minis, skinny belts, jumpsuits, platform shoes -- and, now, the Amelia Earhart look.

It's been revived by Jean Paul Gaultier for the fall Hermes ready-to-wear collection soon arriving in stores, and it features shirts with narrow ties, trousers, leather pencil skirts and bomber jackets. At the Hermes show in Paris last March, models wore aviator hats and goggles with the clothes, as the roar of prop-plane engines set up beyond the catwalk filled the air. "I was inspired by a woman, I forgot her name, an American pilot with very short, wavy hair who was wearing an aviator jacket, which I love, and a little scarf that was so Hermes," Gaultier told the Associated Press.

He probably would be surprised to know that old what's her name wasn't just a style icon; she also had her own fashion label. In fact, Amelia Earhart was America's first celebrity designer, and the story of her short-lived Amelia Earhart line is the story of the start of fashion mass marketing.

Amelia

Earhart was an unlikely style star. When she burst onto the world stage in 1928, following her first transatlantic flight (never mind that she was only riding in the plane with two male pilots, she still was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic), Earhart was derided in the press for her gawky, disheveled appearance. Skinny, freckled, short-haired and boyish looking, she bore a strong resemblance to Charles Lindbergh, and "Lindy in drag" was one of the nicer sobriquets given her. She showed no feminine interest in clothes. While flying, she favored old, high-laced shoes, well-worn trousers, an ancient leather coat with deep pockets, a soft leather helmet and goggles. On land, she wore pretty much the same thing, without the headgear.

This was not the look of an American female idol, and Earhart's manager and husband, publisher George Charles Putnam, vowed to glam her up. Earhart was pretty, with a lovely smile, bright blue eyes, wavy blonde hair and a model's tall, willowy figure (marred somewhat by thick lower legs, one reason she didn't like wearing dresses). With the help of a make-up artist, hair stylist and a new wardrobe of well tailored clothes, she morphed into a paragon of androgynous chic -- just like Katherine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich, two other trouser-wearing, gender-bending beauties who also happened to appear on screen as aviators.

After Earhart's solo flight across the Atlantic in May 20-21, 1931, a feat not coincidentally performed on the fourth anniversary of Lindbergh's historic flight, Earhart and Putnam searched for ways to raise money for the aviatrix's next venture while promoting her image as a national heroine.

They focused on fashion. At the time, American designers labored in obscurity in the backrooms of Seventh Avenue, "like the kitchen help," as Bill Blass once noted. While Paris designers were world famous celebrities -- the names of Chanel, Lanvin, Schiaparelli, Patou, and Paquin, heralded from the pages of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar and the women's pages of the nation's newspapers -- labels on even the highest-end American fashion contained only the names of the manufacturers.

Earhart and her husband convinced the U.S. Rubber Company that her name would sell, and Amelia Earhart Fashion, underwritten by the tire enterprise, debuted in 1934. The clothes were offered in special Amelia Earhart shops in a single department store per city (in New York, Macy's and in Chicago, Marshall Field's). The label, sewn into each garment, featured the aviatrix's signature in black with a thin red line streaking through it to a little red plane soaring in the right corner.

In interviews with the press, Earhart said her goal was to bring the beauty she'd found in aviation closer to all women at prices that didn't reach "new altitudes." In the air, she had a touch of recklessness -- it was part of her charm, a sign of her rebellion against a world that wouldn't allow women to be adventurous, and it probably contributed to her presumed death in July, 1937 (she disappeared over the central Pacific Ocean while attempting a circum-navigational flight of the globe). Her clothes, however, were utterly safe and conventional -- basically copies of mainstream sportswear, with some gimmicky, aviation-themed trimmings.

Many of the fashions -- a windbreaker and a leather trench coat, for example -- mimicked Earhart's flying clothes and were made in washable, practical fabrics like Grenfell cotton, a staple of English hunting wear. Other styles included tweed suits and coats in neutral tones and deep pocketed raincoats in "parachute" silk with buttons shaped like propellers. Earhart told one newspaper that she nearly always incorporated in the styles "something characteristic of aviation, a parachute cord or tie or belt, a ball-bearing belt buckle, wing bolts and nuts for buttons."

Reporters made much of the fact that Amelia owned a sewing machine and had made her own clothes as a girl. She suggested colors and fabrics for her fashion line, but it's unlikely she did any actual designing.

Despite a blizzard of publicity, Earhart fashion failed to catch on with the public, and the line disappeared from America's stores even before the aviatrix vanished. One piece of her own clothing, however, turned up a few weeks later. It was a long white and brown scarf that a man named Wilbur Rothar offered to Earhart's husband as proof of her survival. Rothar claimed that Earhart had been captured by a boat running arms near New Guinea, and he demanded $2,000 from Putnam for his wife's return. As it turned out, Rothar was a New York janitor who years earlier, while in a crowd cheering Earhart's arrival from a routine landing at Long Island's Roosevelt Field, had caught the silk garment as the wind blew it from around her neck.

After Rothar's arrest, Putnam reclaimed the scarf, a symbol of Amelia Earhart's glamorously daring spirit -- the spirit Gaultier no doubt tried to capture in this fall's aviatrix inspired clothes.

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