evening ensemble

Creation date
(a) dress: silk jersey, sequins; (b) coat: vicuna wool, silk lining, sequins
Mark Descriptions
Credit line
Mr and Mrs. William B. Ansted, Jr. Art Fund
Accession number
Not Currently On View

Norman Norell’s signature evening gowns were known as “mermaid dresses.” Sparkling and form-fitting, the dresses debuted in the early 1940s and were a highlight of every Norell collection until his last in 1972. The individually hand stitched sequins were sewn twice to assure that they lay flat and would not catch on one another. This was particularly important for this custom-made ensemble because both the dress and the lining of the coat are entirely covered with sequins.

Anne Hare {1}. (Beverley Birks), New York, New York; purchased by the Indianapolis Museum of Art (1999).
{1} house (fit) model for Norman Norell
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Indianapolis Museum of Art: Highlights of the Collection (2005)

This made-to-order ensemble's sparkling and form-fitting evening gown is a Norman Norell signature design known as a "mermaid dress." Born in Noblesville, Indiana, Norell debuted the look in the early 1940s, and in endless variations mermaid dresses were a highlight of every collection until his last in 1972. The idea emerged during World War II, when the United States government imposed restrictions on the amount of material used in garments. Norell used sequins-which were not essential to the war effort-to provide American women with glamour within wartime restraints.

The sequins, which completely cover the dress and the lining of the coat, were sewn on by hand, each one axed with two stitches taken at slightly different angles to ensure they would lay flat and not catch on one another. The coat typifies Norell's relaxed and comfortable daytime styling; the sequined lining is his only concession to evening formality. The simplicity and casual elegance of Norell designs such as this one appealed to American women, who were willing to pay more for his dresses than for French couture. Norell's understanding of cut and his technical expertise made his ready-to-wear garments as fine as made-to-order outfits. He was instrumental in launching ready-to-wear in the United States.

I simply take the most straightforward approach . . . without any extra, fancy trimmings. I don't like over-designed anything.
-Norman Norell, 1952