Vera Maxwell

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Coverall designed for wartime use

Vera Huppe Maxwell (April 22, 1901, New York City – January 15, 1995, Rincón, Puerto Rico) was a pioneering sportswear and fashion designer.

Background and personal life[edit]

Born Vera Huppe in the Bronx,[1] Maxwell spent part of her childhood in Austria.[2] She attended Leonia High School in Leonia, New Jersey.[3]

She studied ballet in New York and joined the Metropolitan Opera Ballet in 1919, dancing until her marriage to financier Raymond J. Maxwell in 1924.[2] Vera and Raymond J. Maxwell has one child and divorced in 1937.[3]

Maxwell married architect Carlisle H. Johnson in 1938 and divorced him in 1945.[3]


In the late 1920s, Maxwell began modelling at B. Altman and other New York City stores.[1] As she explained, "When the opera season ended in May, the fashion houses on Seventh Avenue were just opening their collections. I would just walk across the street and hire on as a model."[4] Around 1929, Maxwell began sketching for the fashion houses she modeled for.[4]

After years of designing for other manufacturers, she founded her own company, Vera Maxwell Originals, in 1947. Her first collection was sporty, featuring after-ski clothes, tennis outfits, and riding apparel.[2]

Maxwell was part of a pioneering group of American designers creating more relaxed and quintessentially American clothing.[1] Her contemporaries included Claire McCardell, Clare Potter, Carolyn Schnurer, and Tina Leser.[3] Maxwell gave her clothing distinctively American names like "Daniel Boone" for Western wear. By the 1950s, she also was designing evening wear.[2]

Maxwell was the first American designer to make clothes of Ultrasuede and the synthetic fabric Arnel.[3][5] One of her earliest best-sellers was a wrap blouse over a permanently pleated skirt made of Arnel meant for travelers.[6]

In 1935, Maxwell released a "weekend wardrobe" of two jackets, two skirts and a pair of trousers.[3] Inspired by Albert Einstein,[6] the jacket was collarless with four patch pockets in tweed and gray flannel.[3] The jacket could be mixed and matched with all three accompanying pieces: a short pleated flannel tennis skirt, a longer tweed skirt, and a pair of flannel cuffed trousers. In 1999, the New York Times wrote that the "weekend wardrobe" was "so classic they could still be worn today."[3]

In the 1940s, she designed a cotton coverall uniform for war workers at the Sperry Gyroscope Corporation.[3] Known as the "Rosie the Riveter" jumpsuit or coveralls,[5][6][7] they received an "E" for excellence rating from the United States government.[4] They were a forerunner of the modern jump suit.[3]

Maxwell always created her designs in a range of sizes, generally going up to a size 18 or 20 at a time when it was unusual for a designer to design clothes above a size 8. [8] Her use of wrap-and-tie closures and supple fabrics suited a range of body types and allowed for weight fluctuations.[1] According to Maxwell, "The most fashionable women will always be the ones who know themselves."[2]

Maxwell won the Coty Award in 1953.[2] Maxwell met Grace Kelly in 1955 when they were both received Neiman Marcus Fashion Awards and she frequently visited the Royal Family in Monaco.[3]

Maxwell designed for First Ladies Rosalynn Carter and Pat Nixon,[2] as well as performers such as Martha Graham and Lillian Gish.[3]

By 1960, Maxwell's clothes were being sold in 700 stores around the country. But in the 1960s, her star waned as fashion's attention shifted to swinging London designers like Mary Quant.[3]

After the debut of an unsuccessful collection in 1964, Maxwell withdrew from the industry. She resurfaced in 1970 with a collection that was introduced at B. Altman.[3] She was honored in 1970 with a retrospective at the Smithsonian Institution[2] and in 1980 with an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York.[4]

In 1975, Maxwell introduced a pull-on dress with a stretch top and no zippers, buttons, snaps or ties.[3] Called a speed suit, it was a dress a woman could slip it on in 17 seconds. It was inspired by the West German Olympic uniform and the dresses were initially priced at $99 to $199.[9]

Maxwell retired in 1985 and closed her company. She returned in 1986 with one final collection designed for Peter Lynne before permanently retiring.[5]

Later life and death[edit]

Maxwell spent her final years with her son and daughter-in-law. She split her time between Gilgo Beach, Long Island and Rincon, Puerto Rico. Maxwell died on January 15, 1995 at age 93.[1]


Vera Maxwell's designs are held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art,[10] the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Cooper Hewitt,[11] and the Museum of the City of New York.[12][13]


  1. ^ a b c d e Ware, Susan (2004-01-01). Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary Completing the Twentieth Century. Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674014886. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h FOLKART, BURT A. (1995-01-21). "Vera Maxwell; Designer for Practical Professional Women". Los Angeles Times. ISSN 0458-3035. Retrieved 2016-07-07. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Schiro, Anne-marie (1995-01-20). "Vera Maxwell Is Dead at 93; Legendary Sportswear Designer". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-07-07. 
  4. ^ a b c d Pauley, Gay (December 11, 1980). "Vera Maxwell Becomes 'Museum Piece'". Times Daily. Retrieved July 6, 2016 – via,4507073&hl=en. 
  5. ^ a b c Sterlacci, Francesca; Arbuckle, Joanne (2009-09-30). The A to Z of the Fashion Industry. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 9780810868830. 
  6. ^ a b c Martin, Richard Harrison; N.Y.), Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York (1998-01-01). American Ingenuity: Sportswear, 1930s-1970s. Metropolitan Museum of Art. ISBN 9780870998638. 
  7. ^ Jefferson, Margo (1998-06-29). "REVISIONS; Fashion's Contradiction: Woman as Object or as Doer". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-07-07. 
  8. ^ Tuite, Rebecca (2016), "Defining Designs", National Women's History Museum 
  9. ^ Sheppard, Eugenia (March 11, 1975). "Olympic Uniforms Inspire Vera Maxwell's 'Speed Suit'". Toledo Blade. Retrieved July 6, 2016 – via,4741535&hl=en. 
  10. ^ "Collection". The Metropolitan Museum of Art, i.e. The Met Museum. Retrieved 2016-07-07. 
  11. ^ "Vera Maxwell | People | Collection of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum". Retrieved 2016-07-07. 
  12. ^ Anonymous (2013-08-02). "Collections Descriptions". Retrieved 2016-07-07. 
  13. ^ "Museum of the City of New York". Retrieved 2016-07-07. 

External links[edit]