Labels & designers

Meet a Designer: Dorothy O’Hara

[Author’s note: I initially wrote this post in January 2015, but I lost a lot of images when I switched hosts, and I felt like it was time for an update anyway. So here it is: the July 2016 version!]

I’m kind of obsessed with this woman’s dresses. Her ability to drape and flatter the body are legendary, and once I discovered her work, I wanted to know more about her. I also wanted to wear her dresses as often as possible. This one might be my favorite:

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A 1950s Dorothy O’Hara navy blue draped dress scored on ebay, taken before I knew how to properly brush out a pin curl set.

But her draping style kind of evolved from some more broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped designs of the 1940s. A few examples:

 

California Stylist, November 1945

California Stylist, November 1945

 

California Stylist, November 1946

California Stylist, November 1946

California Stylist, October 1947

California Stylist, October 1947

One of the things I love about her designs is that they’re all step-in, even her dresses that looked like suits or two-piece outfits.

“Dorothy O’Hara endorses the slim silhouette, exclusively, Her distinctive signature, the “all-in-one-piece” drapery, places this designer in a class of her own. She literally wraps the body in fabric and her ingenuity makes the most of a woman’s figure.
Working with the grain of the fabric and molding it to give depth to the bust and minimize the waistline, the “poured-into” style is nevertheless a step-in dress in every case. The woman can slip easily into her clothes after hairdo and makeup.”

— Los Angeles Times, July 9, 1954

She did not do suits. She did not do separates. She did not do full skirts. Dorothy O’Hara designed afternoon, cocktail and evening dresses that fit close to the body, often with plenty of draping.

So that’s a bit about her designs, but I found her story to be just as enthralling. Dorothy and her brother Kenneth were born in Los Angeles in 1911 and 1913, respectively. Their mother, Blanche, was a dressmaker from Ohio and married James O’Hara around 1907. It appears that he was something of an unsavory character, at least in his younger years. He worked in the mining industry, probably dealing with oil. He had two children with his first wife Rose in Colorado, then moved to Los Angeles and married Blanche, but had moved on to Texas and remarried by 1917. (Lest we get judgy, he married a woman who already had seven children, and he remained with them until his death in 1939.)

At any rate, Blanche was left in Los Angeles with two very young children, and continued to work as a dressmaker. It appears that they moved around a great deal, because each year in the city directory they have a different address. Incidentally, Blanche listed herself as a widow in the city directories after James left, although he didn’t actually die until 1939. Given the stigma of divorce or separation at the time, one can’t exactly blame her, and it’s likely that she didn’t know he was alive.

Dorothy learned from her mother, who worked as a dressmaker most of her life. In 1934, Dorothy married Henry (Hank) J. Lunney, though she continued to use her maiden name professionally. Their son Falcon was born in 1935. During the 1930s and early 1940s, Dorothy worked for some small dress manufacturers in Los Angeles, including the Malouf Dress Corporation and Hunt Broughton & Hunt.

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Broadway in the 1930s was an exciting place to be. Next door is the United Artists theater, which is now the Ace Hotel.

By 1945, her career had started to really take off. Dorothy and Hank established Fashion Forecast (later Dorothy O’Hara Inc.), their own manufacturing firm, 1944.

 

California Stylist, January 1945

California Stylist, January 1945

She was working for Paramount as a costume designer when she showed her first collection outside California at the St. Regis Hotel in New York for Arnold Constable, at that point a long-established high-end department store. From a 1945 New York Sun article by Mabel Greene:

“Dorothy O’Hara, youthful and talented California designer whom Arnold Constable introduced yesterday to the NewYork press, entered her profession through her widowed mother’s custom order dressmaking workrooms.

Chestnut-haired Miss O’Hara has been a designer for Paramount Studios for two years and recently was re-signed on a four-year contract, with the added privilege of designing clothes for clients outside the motion picture studios. Yesterday the collection she has created for fall wear, which will be available about August 1 exclusively in New York at Arnold Constable Fifth Avenue[.]”

— Mabel Greene, New York Sun, April 20, 1945

At the same time, California clothing designers and manufacturers were continuing to organize and heavily market California fashion as unique and desirable. In the trade publication California Stylist, the local industry was proud to claim her as a native daughter, despite her first showing happening away from the West Coast.

“Lovely young Dorothy O’Hara, talented double-time fashion designer for both Paramount Studios and her own manufacturing firm, Fashion Forecast, was recently ‘discovered’ by the press of Chicago and New York when her fall collection of dresses was introduced in those two cities… The Fashion Forecast line is designed with the same deft touches, the same eye to appeal and flattery, which mark the film styles by Miss O’Hara, yet she never repeats or copies from one medium to the other.”

– California Stylist, May 1945

 

California Stylist, October 1945

California Stylist, October 1945

 

California Stylist, April 1946

California Stylist, April 1946

 

January 1947

January 1947

 

The Californian, September 1947

The Californian, September 1947

 

The Californian, October 1949

The Californian, October 1949

 

1949

1949

 

The Californian, Winter 1950 (modeled by Ms. O'Hara herself; no wonder her dresses had such slim hips)

The Californian, Winter 1950 (modeled by Ms. O’Hara herself; no wonder her dresses had such slim hips. Keep in mind she’s about 40 years old here. I sat that not because 40 is too old to be modeling—it’s not, I’m almost 40—but because damn, she is tiny and looks not 40)

 

The Californian, 1951

A relatively rare casual afternoon frock seen in The Californian, 1951

 

With the exception of a bit of a break in the early 1950s, she was prominently featured in both advertisement and editorial in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar throughout her career. In the mid-1950s, her look shifted from elegantly draped to elegantly draped with a very strong dose of sexy, but she remained versatile. In 1953, she designed her first complete evening wear collection. She also designed the dresses in which the daughters of the Governor of California would meet Queen Elizabeth. But her later 1950s dresses is what she’s primarily known for.

 

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“Dorothy O’hara inimitably drapes a crepe sheath creating prophetic fashion with her distinctive signature.” Advertisement in Vogue, March 1, 1956

 

Vogue, November 1, 1956

Vogue, November 1, 1956

 

Dorothy and her husband and son moved from Beverly Hills (the house or apartment building they lived in at 8717 Burton Way has since been replaced) to Newport Beach. Specifically, they built a home on Lido Isle, a small man-made island in the Newport Beach harbor, built from an existing mudflat and developed for residential use in the early 1920s to resemble a European resort. Their single-story home was designed by Hank and architect Theodore Pletach in true California style, built around a central lanai for year-round outdoor living. A 1954 LA Times article shows pictures of the interior, but the online copies are so poor that it’s impossible to make out any detail. Dorothy died in 1963 at the young age of 51.

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Again, from the 1945 article, which sums it up pretty well:

“If this writer were asked to describe her excellent work in a single phrase, it would be: “No gingerbread.” Miss O’Hara learned her job the hard way, starting as a model and working her way through the pattern and fitting departments. Her evaluation of feminine fashions obviously includes some solid basic conclusions that some other designers might well copy, i. e., that ornateness is not fashion and that simplicity is its own elegance.”

— New York Sun, April 20, 1945
in July 14, 2016

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7 Comments

  • Ree November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    WOW!!! So THAT is who inspired my absolute favorite dresses in the 80s!!! I had two dresses almost exactly like the gray crepe cocktail dress pictured above.

    They were casual – made of soft knit material and were inexpensive. I don’t recall the label. I probably bought from one of the chain stores at the time. The draping was absolutely flattering and I felt like a million bucks every time I wore either. One was pale yellow and one was black. I think I may have even bought an extra black one because I loved it so much. They were so versatile – I dressed them up with bold necklaces and very high heels. But I remember also wearing with no accessories because the dress was that special – it could stand on its own. Thanks for bringing back memories of some of the best times of my life.

    Reply
    • Jessica Parker January 27, 2015 at 1:14 am

      What a great story! It’s fascinating to see how history repeats itself and what themes come back around. Thanks for sharing!

      Reply
  • Lizzie January 23, 2015 at 9:14 pm

    What a great post. It’s always a pleasure learning more about the great designers of the past.

    Reply
    • Jessica Parker January 24, 2015 at 2:13 am

      Thanks so much Lizzie! I’ve been inspired a great deal by your research and interviews so that means a lot.

      Reply
  • juli May 15, 2015 at 5:38 am

    Hi Thank you for this great information! Dorothy was my grandmothers best friend. I have 5 of her dresses and have had the pleasure wearing them to my high school dances in the 80’s and beyond. I wanted to teach my daughter about her life. Thank you for all of your hard work.

    Reply
    • Pa trick O'Brien October 7, 2016 at 4:40 am

      Dorothy, was my grandmother O’Brien’s (maiden name O’Hara’s) half-sister. Thank you for the inforation. My grandma was one of many Irish orphans who spent her life trying to track down her brothers and sisters who were given to Irish’ German, Pole and other families to raise. She finally found Dorothy and 3-4 others before she died. I fellove in love with Dorothy the instant I saw her photo..I was about 6. 🙂

      Reply
      • Jessica Parker October 7, 2016 at 4:44 am

        That’s amazing! Thanks for sharing 🙂

        Reply

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