Paris may have launched Chanel and Milan delivered Armani, but it was Evansville, Indiana, that gave the fashion world Halston.
Perhaps the Frank Lloyd Wright of fashion with his minimalist styles and clean designs, Halston achieved international fame during the 1970s. Before Roy Halston Frowick would be known simply by his Halston moniker, he built his career designing for men and later for women, especially hats. You might have seen his famous pillbox designs famously worn by First Lady Jackie Kennedy, who was a fan of the up-and-coming designer.
Halston was born in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1932, but he moved to Evansville during his childhood and attended high school there until graduating in 1950. Even as a child, Halston liked to sew and made clothing articles for his mother and sister. Two years after graduating, Halston moved to Chicago where he began work as a window dresser. He also signed up for an evening class at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Within another few years, he was selling his own hat creations and was able to open a shop on North Michigan Avenue by 1957.
Wearing the hat of shop owner was not enough to keep the ambitious designer in Chicago. He left for New York City soon after to work for the celebrated French milliner Lilly Dache. Within the year, Dache promoted her protege as co-designer and he began to hobnob with fashion editors and publishers.
Once Jackie Kennedy perched Halston’s pillbox hats atop her perfectly coiffed head, the fashion designer’s legacy was cemented–but the First Lady was just a start. Halston took a break from hat designs and decided the rest of the body needed his stylish adornments too. The designer created his quintessential ready-to-wear line, Halston Limited, in 1969. Both glamorous and comfortable, the line featured soft-to-touch fabrics like chiffon and silk. He banished stiff zippers that didn’t zip as well as unnecessary decorations like bows and buttons, resulting in clothes both luxuriant yet simple.
Women swooned for Halston’s clothing during the 1970s. The designer decked out Lauren Bacall, Anjelica Houston, Bianca Jagger, and Elizabeth Taylor. Celebrities flocked to Halston and he, in turn, enjoyed rubbing elbows with them at popular New York City hot spots like Studio 51. During his heyday, Halston designed for the stars but also for everyday women, organizations like the Girl Scouts, airplane stewardesses, and the New York City Police Department. The U.S. Olympic Committee even asked the celebrity designer to design Olympian uniforms for the 1976 Olympics.
After signing a billion-dollar deal to sell a line of his clothing, accessories, and perfumes in J.C. Penney stores, the fashion designer’s luster began to wear. High-end stores believed that Halston had “cheapened” his brand. In retrospect, however, the move did pave the way for other big-name designers to market their fashions in more mainstream venues.
In 1988, Halston learned that he had HIV. His family cared for him as his health began to diminish. In 1990, Halston died in San Francisco of Kaposi’s Sarcoma, an illness associated with AIDS. Today, Halston’s vintage fashions command big price tags at auction. Many museums around the country feature traveling exhibitions of his designs, including his quintessential pillbox hats. If you get the chance, be sure to check one out and pay close attention to those hats. It’s said that he was so concerned that his pillbox hats should fit the First Lady’s head perfectly , that he would wear them himself to make sure their fit was flawless.