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Easy Does It

California's casual lifestyle is a reliable source for fashion trends.

April 12, 2002|BOOTH MOORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

California fashion has always been more cowboy than couture, more blue jeans than Beau Brummel. Style here filters up from the streets and beaches and out from the big screen, instead of down from the runways as it does in New York, Paris and Milan.

This is, after all, the birthplace of Levi's, the modern fashion swimsuit, the poodle skirt, pedal-pushers, the Haight Ashbury hippie look and the surf short. And for decades, movies and TV have inspired global dressing more than any single European designer--even Yves Saint Laurent.

The allure of Hollywood has sent women running to buy sexy sarongs like Dorothy Lamour's and man-tailored pants like Katharine Hepburn's, just as it has sent men to stores for white T-shirts and leather motorcycle jackets like Marlon Brando's.

"More people dress in styles rooted in California than styles born almost anywhere else," writes Marian Hall in her gem of a book, "California Fashion," due from Harry Abrams in June.

The fashion industry in California has succeeded not in spite of its outsider status, but because of it. In the 1930s and 1940s, East Coast designers were still doggedly knocking-off trends from Europe. But the heavy fabrics and formal styles didn't make sense for easygoing California.

So, one of the first American designers of sportswear separates, Lou Van Roy, broke out of the mold. Working for an L.A. company called Lou Kornhandler, she showed women that a skirt and jacket purchased together could be worn together, or with other items from the wardrobe, creating the foundation for modern, mix n' match dressing in the early 1930s even, according to Hall, before New York's Claire McCardell.

The same casual lifestyle that inspired sportswear gave rise to surfwear in the 1950s. In 1959, just after the foam surfboard was developed, Duke Boyd and seamstress Doris Moore created a pair of wide-leg canvas shorts and founded Hang Ten. Lightweight nylon trunks followed, making the company millions and spawning an industry that now includes brands such as Quiksilver and Body Glove, based in Orange County.

In San Francisco in the 1960s, the rock 'n' roll generation defined itself by rejecting consumer society and dressing in ripped jeans and handcrafted, Old World clothing and accessories. The hippie aesthetic inspired Saint Laurent's peasant look, and continues to cycle through designer collections, including those in stores now.

Runway shows have come and gone in California. In 1937, L.A.-based publications California Stylist and California Apparel News began organizing "fashion fiestas" in Palm Springs, Hall writes.

Swimwear designer Fred Cole, whose daughter Anne continues his business, was innovative in getting press here, she said. "Editors and buyers came out [from the East Coast] and had a mini-vacation. They had entree to all kinds of people's houses and the movie studios. They did it up and that was the allure," she said.

After World War II, movie studios began cross-promotions with designers, providing personal appearances by stars such as Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, who would meet and greet editors at events as elaborate as a privately chartered train trip to the Grand Canyon.

Hollywood has always been an important vehicle for California style.

Working within the studio system, costume designers Travis Banton, Edith Head and Gilbert Adrian were able to influence wardrobes worldwide with their designs. In the 1940s, when Adrian created the broad-shouldered jacket for Joan Crawford to draw attention away from her thick waist and wide hips, the shape swept the nation. His bias-cut gowns for Jean Harlow were also copied at all price points, writes Hall, a former fashion model, apparel manufacturer and curator of L.A.'s Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising.

The golden age of California design was the late 1950s, when masters such as James Galanos, Don Loper, William Travilla, Michael Novarese and Rudi Gernreich offered an avant-garde alternative to Adrian's sharp silhouette and to sportswear.

Galanos' artfully draped gowns were on par with French couture. He designed both of Nancy Reagan's inaugural gowns.

Gernreich was a futurist. He embraced California's independent, frontier spirit, designing unstructured bathing suits that liberated women's bodies, including the famed topless suit.

Today, California style is both democratic and elitist, Hall writes. This is the place that supplies the world with the clothes people actually wear. At the same time, it is home to the red carpet, the most famous fashion runway anywhere.

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