When Alistair Cooke was elevated to the Hall of Fame of the International Best Dressed List, he wrote Eleanor Lambert, coordinator of the list since 1939, that he was flattered, but had a problem. "My 9-year-old grandson is immensely impressed but asked if they could visit the Hall of Fame one day . . . He has a vague notion that it is in Greece -- the Parthenon?"
List regular Evangeline Bruce, ambassadors' wives and lots of others who rightfully aspire to such an accolade turned out for a luncheon last week at the Regent Hotel held in Lambert's honor by the Washington Fashion Group.
Lambert, the ultimate fashion publicist and the first to publicize American designer names, also created the Coty Awards -- the fashion industry's Oscars, about the same time she started her work on the Best Dressed List.
Lambert encouraged using designer labels just before World War II, when dress manufacturers and union leaders feared women would stop buying clothes. "They were totally wrong," recalled Lambert before the luncheon. "During the war there was a freeze on hard goods and there was nothing to buy but clothes."
However, the industry's advertising program didn't boost dress sales, and Lambert, who had her own publicity company, was tapped to redirect the campaign.
"It seemed to me that the only way to make American fashion stand for something was to let people know who the creative personalities were, as they did in Italy and France," said Lambert, who added that until the early 1940s clothing carried only store labels. Under Lambert's direction, design names like Nettie Rosenstein, Adele Simpson, Mollie Parnis, Maurice Rentner, Ben Zuckerman, Pauline Trige re and Hattie Carnegie began to appear and the designer label was born.
"Let's be honest, darling, she started it all," said Lambert's friend and client Bill Blass, by phone from New York.
Lambert, who founded the Council of Fashion Designers, the professional organization of designers, and was the first to represent fashion on the National Endowment for the Arts council, is a bit aghast at the "rock star syndrome," as she calls the superstar status demanded by American designers today.
A public relations pro, she wouldn't name names, but she said, "I deplore it. Talents are only good when they perform. So many designers are so carried away with their own personalities they are not singing and dancing anymore, not creating. They haven't learned that a performer has to keep performing, not sit around with a halo on."
Many young designers get star status too quickly, she says. Like Stephen Sprouse, "who arrived at the top in a stunt kind of way, not taking time to grow." Stephen Burrows, she says, was promoted by stores too quickly, and then fell from sight. "There are superstars like Bill Blass who have worked and worked for it, but boy! It takes a long time." She adds, "In all fields there are young geniuses who come and go in one week."
At the same time, she regrets that the Coty Awards, which she created in 1943, neglect to recognize fresh talent. "There's a sickness in the New York fashion press -- it's a campus clique. They have their own circle of superstars that they believe in and they won't bother to seek out anyone new. They've bogged down."
If the Coty Awards are mired in "dead water," as she says, the Best Dressed List is alive and well -- witness the smartly dressed crowd of 75 or more that turned out to learn more about it last week. "It reflects the way people dress at a particular time in history," said Lambert in a conversation with Garfinckel's Aniko Gaal, who chaired the luncheon. "The way you dress is the way you live in the world."
She didn't invent the list, she said. For years there was a list, reported by the wire services from Paris, of the 10 best-dressed women. In 1939 she sent her first questionnaire from which she built the list to designers in Paris, London, Rome and New York.
When no other list was published, Lambert released hers to the papers. In 1941 she did it again and has done it every year since, relying on the votes of fashion pros. "I've paid for it myself all my career. It's my gesture to fashion history," said Lambert, who had the independence and added clout as the wife of the late Seymour Berkson, president of International News Service and publisher of the New York Journal American.
Evangeline Bruce said she didn't remember her reaction when she first was put on the list -- "it was very long ago," she laughed.
Not everyone has been happy about being on the list, Lambert said. In fact one man came to her office asking that his wife's name be left off. "I'm being investigated in Washington and don't want it to look like she outfitted herself so extravagantly." Other husbands in angry letters have complained that their wives are as well dressed as those on the list.
"They may be right," Lambert said. "But you also have to be well known." Carol Price made the list only after her husband was appointed ambassador to the Court of St. James's."
Nancy Reagan, Evangeline Bruce and Deeda Blair are Washington regulars on the list; Eleanor Roosevelt once complained about not being on it. The duchess of Windsor, says Lambert, probably shouldn't have been on it. "She was always too perfect, too organized. That is not my idea of perfect elegance."
What is her idea? "Being admired in whatever you wear and putting your clothes together in an interesting way that shows individuality yet with consciousness of current fashion," said Lambert who says Bruce epitomizes this idea. Lambert likes the idea of the late designer Mainbocher: "I never enjoy seeing a woman so breathlessly chic that she looked as if she had just run upstairs."