Today, it is not uncommon for a celebrity to launch a clothing line. Everyone from Michael Strahan to Rachael Ray has designed or endorsed clothing, including a number of top athletes.
They owe some gratitude to pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart, who was one of the first notable figures to dabble in fashion design.
Fashion at 40,000 feet
As the first woman to fly both solo and non-stop across the Atlantic, Earhart has had a spectacular career as a pilot. But these achievements did not necessarily come with financial rewards. For this, Earhart turned to what was then a new business venture – a branded fashion offering.
Earhart had obtained advice on the business from fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli. While that undoubtedly helped, his real inspiration may have come from first-hand experience. As a young pilot, Earhart was dismayed to find that flight suits were designed specifically for men, which meant they didn’t fit her figure. A need for sensible “active” clothes, regardless of gender, was something that apparently stuck with him.
Earhart then teamed up with her husband/manager George Charles Putnam to continue the business, apparently working with a sewing machine and a single assistant to create a line of activewear she dubbed Amelia Earhart Fashions. She even took on the task of modeling the clothes herself.
“I felt there was a real need for sporting goods in the middle price range,” she said. The Boston Globe in 1934. “…I have tried to make my clothes suitable for those who have only a limited sum to spend, and who want things simple, beautiful and not extreme.”
Amelia Earhart Fashions takes off
By 1933, customers at department stores like Macy’s and Marshall Field’s could choose from a variety of dresses, skirts, tops, and more, all bearing Earhart’s signature on the label. Some were even made of parachute silk with propeller-shaped buttons, a clear nod to Earhart’s true passion.
“I had a great time fitting a lot of airplane gadgets into my clothes,” she said.
What made the line even more unique for the time was that women could purchase “separates”: rather than a full dress, they could mix and match the garments. It was a departure from the common women’s styles of the time and one that would only become more widely accepted over time.
While Earhart anticipated a lasting trend, Amelia Earhart Fashions wouldn’t be leading the charge. In the midst of the Great Depression, disposable income was scarce. Although Earhart had an argument in interviews that the price of the clothes wouldn’t reach “new heights” – dresses selling for around $30, or just over $625 in today’s dollars – it was more than the market could bear. The line didn’t last and Earhart focused on her flying skills.
In 1935, Earhart set more records, including becoming the first person to fly solo from Honolulu to Oakland, Los Angeles to Mexico City, and Mexico City to Newark. Famously, she essentially disappeared on July 2, 1937, just weeks shy of her fortieth birthday, with theories of her fate ranging from crashing in the Pacific to being captured by Japanese forces.
It’s amazing what Earhart has been able to accomplish in his short life. And while her career in aviation garners the most attention, it’s clear she set out to achieve so much more.
Curiously, the clothing line lacked the garment Earhart was best known for: a leather bomber jacket.