Fort Wayne Fashion Icon Bill Blass

Suzanne Slick, Collection Information Specialist 

Our current exhibit, 1026 West Berry Street, shines a light on the Fort Wayne Art School and when we return from the holidays we will begin working towards the 2019 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and exhibit. This post remembers Fort Wayne native Bill Blass — king of fashion, handsome heartthrob, most available bachelor, darling of the fashion press — all words written about this icon of high fashion who had ties to both the Art School and to the Scholastic Awards.  

Blass was born in Fort Wayne in 1922 and grew up in a modest home on South Calhoun Street, son of a hardware salesman and a dressmaker. His father’s suicide when Bill was 5 and Depression-era deprivations had a life-long impact on him.  He spent long hours alone drawing imagined scenes of privilege and elegance, or flipping through the pages of his mother’s Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar magazines. As a child of 6, Bill illustrated fantasy cocktail parties peopled with elegantly dressed men and women in an imagined world of beauty and refinement. Later in life he joked that he, at 6, had never even been to a cocktail party. His mother, Ethyl, raised her son and daughter alone under a  cloak of repressed respectability, and his father’s suicide was not discussed; despite Blass often attributing his air of refined American style to his Hoosier upbringing. 

Young Bill’s active imagination was fueled by long hours in the neighborhood movie theatre, soaking up the glamour and fantasy of 1930’s Hollywood. Someone, teacher or parent, must have seen his potential and encouraged his artistic endeavors and early training. As a teen, Bill would take the bus across town to attend art classes for children and young adults at the Fort Wayne Art School on West Berry Street. While in the neighborhood, he sometimes walked past a bungalow just a half block from the school that had a plaque identifying the house as the childhood home of Jane Alice Peters, who took the name Carole Lombard when she became a darling of the silver screen.  Like a lot of Americans, Blass and his friends endured the 1930’s by living vicariously through the luscious motion pictures of the day – lives of glamour, sophistication, and high fashion.

The beauty of being able to draw, or paint, from an early age is that you never feel trapped, least of all by your immediate circumstances –Bill Blass

Blass was a student at South Side High School when Carole Lombard starred in My Man Godfrey, for which she was nominated for the Academy Awards Best Actress. Later in life, after earning his reputation as a great man of style and glamour, Blass often recalled Carole Lombard as someone who symbolized escape from the dull to the beautiful: “I knew exactly what I wanted to do since childhood. It must have been the films, watching her (Carole Lombard). It seemed possible to me somebody could get out.”

Blass’ ascent to the pinnacle of the fashion world, rooted in his family’s humble life, tragedy, and a driving desire to escape that somber existence in Indiana, was also based in his work ethic and innate talent for business.  There were early signs of ambition in Bill: gown designs sold to New York fashion houses at the age of 15, awards and scholarships earned for his childhood drawings and fashion designs, and five national awards from Scholastic Magazine at the 16th annual Scholastic competition. His entrepreneurial spirit is described in a 1939 News Sentinel story about the South Side High School senior’s business decorating and selling hundreds of Easter eggs made to look like popular cartoon characters. He used his spring vacation to take and fill orders for these creations, making a profit of $50! The article closes with, “Bill studies art under Miss Blanche Hutto at South Side and also attends the Fort Wayne Art School.” Bill left Fort Wayne at 17 for New York, and began his career in the grueling design environment of the garment district that eventually grew into his own 700 million dollar per year firm.

Blass was generous to those institutions that held meaning for him. Devoted book lover, he gave ten million dollars to the New York Public Library, saying “Books change people’s lives.” For young Bill, “A library card was a passport to the outside world.”

Before his death from throat cancer in June 2002, he had curated and planned every detail of a retrospective of his life’s work — even to the candle-lit dinner menu of meatloaf and oatmeal cookies from his own recipes — typical Blass wit and style. Sadly, he passed before the show opened in October. The exhibition, Bill Blass: An American Designer, at Indiana University’s Museum of Art attracted hundreds of the glitterati of the fashion world and Blass’ high society friends. Blass left one million dollars to the university that would help support its historic costume collection and apparel and interior design programs.  A 1990 letter in our archive indicates that he made a donation to our new building capital fund, but whether he visited  the present FWMoA wasn’t indicated.

These sketches by a teen-aged Blass are from our Permanent Collection and were completed for Miss Blanche Hutto, well-known Fort Wayne  art educator.  They were among items from her estate that were given to the Fort Wayne Museum of Art.

Three women are sketched in fashionable evening gowns. From left, a long pink, pleated gown with hood; a green dress with cut-outs and long sleeves, and a strapless emerald green dress with necklace and matching gloves.
Bill Blass, American, 1922-2202. Three Evening Gowns. Ink on paper, 1935. Gift of the Blanche Hutto Estate, 1982.04.01a. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.
This sketch includes a woman in pleated dress with a flat hat, heels, and purse and wrap. The dress is pleated and includes a collar and flower pinned to the lapel.
Bill Blass, American, 1922-2002. Summer Dress. Ink on paper. Gift of the Blanche Hutto Estate, 1982.04.01. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Visit FWMoA in February to see the Fort Wayne Art School and Scholastic Exhibits! 1026 West Berry St: The Fort Wayne Art School is up through Sunday, February 10th, 2019  and the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards opens on Saturday, February 9th, 2019. 

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