Bill Blass' Place in History
From Nancy Reagan to celebrities of today, Bill Blass' fashions have refined the "American look" with their distinctly Midwestern no-fuss aesthetic. Blass' place in history also goes beyond dressing America as he played an important part during WWII as a member of the Ghost Army, earning him a Congressional Gold Medal and the first CFDA Humanitarian award.
On his 100th birthday, his hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana, is honoring his contributions to American fashion and WWII with 100 days of exhibits featuring sketches and designs, events, and celebrations.
Bill Blass’ Connection to Fort Wayne
Bill Blass was born and raised in Fort Wayne, Indiana on June 22, 1922. He grew up in a house on South Calhoun, across from South Side High School with his one sibling, an older sister named Virginia. When he was 5 years old, Bill’s father took his life. In his autobiography Bare Blass, Bill wrote, “My mother supported us with money she earned by dressmaking which she did with decent success in a spare room in our house on South Calhoun Street.”
As a young boy, Bill spent hours reading fashion magazines and going to the local movie house with friends, noting the costumes that actresses wore. He took the trolley across town to art classes to sharpen his sketching skills. When he was fifteen, he began selling sketches of evening dresses for $25 to Kalmour, a manufacturer in New York.
“In retrospect, I can see how certain influences of my childhood and youth entered my unconsciousness and remained there, like a fine fog, while I steered unaware, and apparently grinning, toward the only city I ever have ever wanted to live in (New York) to do the only thing I have ever wanted to do (fashion),” wrote Bill in Bare Blass.
Bill Blass’ Place in Fashion History
Blass is best known for being one of the premier American designers of the 20th century. He produced signature simple yet striking designs that were distinctly American and clearly tied to his upbringing in the relaxed and conservative Midwest. He helped refine the “American Look” that other designers’ empires were built upon. Blass never wandered from his roots, producing elegant garments coveted by some of America’s leading ladies, including Gloria Vanderbilt, Liza Minnelli, and Jackie Kennedy.
Success was not immediate for Blass, “I drew my first sketch of my corporate logo in 1944 while lying on a bunk in Luxembourg, then it would be another fifteen years before I would have a product to put it on, and another ten after that before I had my own name on the door. Patience is something I know a lot about,” wrote Bill in Bare Blass.
Bill Blass’ Involvement in the Ghost Army
Bill’s career path took a detour during World War II when he joined the army in 1942. He became a member of the 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion, eventually known as the Ghost Army.
The battalion’s sole mission was to deceive the Germans about the location and strength of American troops on battlefields across Europe. Bill and his fellow soldiers designed and produced elaborate ploys, including inflatable tanks, trucks, jeeps, and airplanes, as well as sound trucks, phony radio transmissions, and temporary campsites. These deceptions provided critical support as the Allied front lines moved eastward after D-Day luring German forces away from the fighting units’ true locations.
The Ghost Army’s operations and contributions were never honored because their story remained classified for over 40 years. On February 1, 2022, The Ghost Army Congressional Gold Medal Act was signed by the president following a seven-year campaign to honor these brave men. Of the more than 1,100 members of the Ghost Army, only 10 survive today.
Bill Blass 100-Day Community Celebration
In celebration, displays, exhibits, talks, and other activities will take place from June 22 thru September 30, 2022. Exhibits of note include an in-depth survey of Bill’s fashion career at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, a look at Bill’s life including WWII sketchbooks and early childhood drawings at the Fort Wayne History Center, and a display at the Veteran’s National Memorial Shrine & Museum.
Throughout the 100 days, children are invited to fill out a Bill Blassport at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art for a free kiddie cone at Oh Five Scoop Shop. Children’s activities will also be available at the Allen County Public Library.
Follow in the footsteps of Blass, and enjoy a historical plaque at his childhood home at 3618 S. Calhoun Street or find beautiful metal sculptures reminiscent of Bill Blass’ fashion scattered around Fort Wayne.
Additional activities include lectures with Kelly Richardson, Elizabeth Sage Historic Costume Collection curator at Indiana University, and Kate Rowold, author of Bill Blass: An American Designer, in August, and a talk with Rick Beyer, author of The Ghost Army of World War II: How One Top-Secret Unit Deceived the Enemy with Inflatable Tanks, Sound Effects, and Other Audacious Fakery, and Bruce Haines in September.