The Dresses of Ray Eames

Fashion design was one of Ray’s first loves. She began creating paper dolls at just three years old, and she continued making them straight through high school, eventually drawing a colorful array of dresses, coats, and other garments to pair with them.

Her steadfast interest led to a degree in fashion design from Bennett School for Girls in Millbrook, New York. During this period, Ray’s close friend from high school, Barney Reese, remembers her returning to Sacramento for a visit:

She was home, and it turned out there was a dance at our house. . . .and in those days, why all the boys wore suits and the girls wore silken dresses and so forth. . . . And, of course, she hadn’t brought a party dress; she didn’t know about that [the dance party]. And, we said, ‘Oh, come on, you have to come.’ And she wore her nightgown, which had spaghetti straps, and it looked just like a party dress. . . . No one knew it was her nightgown, you see. And she wore it with all the aplomb of her cocktail dress. So that was stamped in my memory forever: How to cover any emergency—why Ray could do it well.

Barney Reese’s memory highlights just how playful and resourceful Ray was from an early age. She exhibited these qualities in everything she did, eventually weaving them into her lifetime of work with Charles. Their collaboration provided Ray many opportunities to continue expressing her love for fashion design. She created intricate textiles, clothing for herself and Charles, and uniforms for IBM Pavilion staff members during the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

When Ray designed an item of clothing, her concerns were largely the same as when she created a chair or other product with Charles: How practical, durable, functional, and cost-effective was it?

Ray used quality materials and constructed items with extreme precision down to the tiniest detail. Her garments sometimes featured special cuts in the hems of the sleeves and backs of the jackets. She also applied her love and eye for color, adding seams—always flawlessly sewn—that intentionally contrasted the fabric’s colors. In the end, cost-effective fashion sometimes meant spending a little extra time and money crafting an item so someone could enjoy it for years to come, rather than hastily making something that might quickly fall apart. And, if something did fall apart, she repaired it or patched it rather than throwing it away.

Carla Hartman, eldest Eames grandchild and education director for the Eames Office, recalls a particularly telling story about Ray: Two matrons were standing behind her at a cocktail party. Thinking they were out of earshot, one whispered to the other, “Oh, look at that patch on Ray Eames’s cape. You’d think with all of the money Mr. Eames makes, he would buy his wife a new frock.” Yet buying something new when she could mend or patch a perfectly good piece of clothing went against her philosophy. She and Charles didn’t believe in throwing away things they liked nor things that hadn’t reached the end of their useful life. It wasn’t practical. And, practicality was key for Ray. There’s no better example of this than the dresses she wore herself.

Ray often worked 14-hour days at 901, moving between professional client meetings and carefully-curated picnics to getting her hands dirty in the graphics room and furniture workshop. Her solution was to wear “little jumpers that were tight in the waist and…little dirndl skirts,” as Frances Bishop recalls. Yet, former staff member, Etsu Garfias, reminds us that these dresses included very practical features. “She always had these huge pockets in her dress. One story was that she could pull an 8.5-by-11 inch picture out of it and have it just perfect.”

Indeed, Ray’s outfits often included hidden pockets ranging from 7-inches to upwards of 18-inches long, allowing her to carry scissors, writing utensils, photographs, and myriad other objects she needed for the project at hand. In classic Eamesian form, her clothing design addressed itself to the need.

Installation view from Ray Eames: In the Spotlight, curated by the Eames Office in 2014 for the Art Center College of Design’s Williamson Gallery, Pasadena, California. Two of Ray’s dresses are displayed: The one in the foreground is inside out, revealing the large pockets hidden inside. Photo: Tim McQuaide