Damsels of Design: Harley Earl's Designing Women

Nine remarkable designers and one unprecedented show.

General MotorsphotographerJeff Storkwriter

It was quite unlike any show of concept cars yet seen in the then-new General Motors Styling Dome. Streamers of red fabric descended from the interior of the dome. A trio of cylindrical cages some 30 feet high were filled with a hundred chirping canaries. Fragrant hyacinths in pots ringed five large circles of carpet on the floor. And within each carpeted circle were two cars, grouped by make.

But the real surprise in this dramatic display was that each of the 10 glistening show cars within GM's inner sanctum of design had been customized by women. The 1958 event was dubbed the Spring Fashion Festival of Women Designed Cars. Orchestrated by GM styling chief Harley Earl, it was the first exhibition by female auto designers anywhere in the world.

The auto industry in its early years didn't really seem to pay much attention to women. Betty Thatcher Oros had been a designer at Hudson for a couple of years in the late 1930s. Earl had hired his first female designer, Helene Rother, in 1943. And there was Audrey Moore Hodges, who joined Studebaker in 1944 and later went on to Tucker. But only in the postwar era did automakers start to think seriously about women. The mass move to the suburbs brought with it the two-car household and suburban female drivers. By the mid-1950s, the biggest question in the car business was how to appeal to women.

Earl decided that the best way to sell more cars to women would be to involve them in the design process. In 1955 he traveled to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, to find suitable candidates. There Earl found seven of the nine designers that GM public relations came to call the "Damsels of Design."

The women relocated to Detroit. Six worked in the design studios within each of GM's automotive brands—two at Chevrolet and one each at Buick, Cadillac, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac. The remaining three went to GM subsidiary Frigidaire, working on the "Kitchen of Tomorrow," as well as displays and details for the automotive studios. Within the car division studios, the women were all assigned to interior studios and worked with color and trim, as well as with interior detailing.

Morale among the women was generally high, although some didn't enjoy being called Damsels and would have preferred simply to be treated on par with their male counterparts. Yet at the same time, these women realized they were trailblazers and, as they said both at the time and in later years, GM provided a great opportunity for the advancement of women in the world of design.

The Damsels of Design were reaching their pinnacle of influence in the spring of 1958 when Harley Earl came up with what was unofficially called the Feminine Auto Show. Each studio was tasked with preparing two cars. The women would have total control over their appearance. Although this pres-entation might seem patronizing today, there had never been a show of this type--prepared by women--in the history of the car industry.

The Feminine Auto Show cars were exhibited in the Styling Dome, and GM executives from all over the country flew in to see them. After that, the cars were moved to the main exhibit hall of the General Motors headquarters in Detroit. The show attendees were invited to vote for their favorites. The Damsels went all out, and the cars were dazzling. The other feminine contribution to the show was the display itself. The fabric drapes, cages of canaries, and hyacinth-ringed carpet circles were the work of Gere Kavanaugh, one of the Damsels who worked on displays and exhibits.

From Chevrolet came Jeanette Linder's Impala Martinique, a convertible in pearlescent yellow and white that featured seat upholstery inserts in a specially designed four-color fabric. The same fabric was used to line the trunk and to create a set of custom luggage. Within the cabin, lighted makeup mirrors and a glove-box-mounted vanity were designed to catch a lady's eye.

Ruth Glennie painted her Fancy Free Corvette in a metallic silvery olive and created a matching interior that was set off by four sets of seat covers, one for each season. They ranged from a yellow print for summer to simulated black fur for winter. Fancy Free was also equipped with a storage bin for a purse and—a first for GM—retractable seat belts.

From the Buick studio, Marjorie Ford Pohlman created two cars. Her Tampico Buick Special convertible was painted alabaster with a flame orange interior. It featured bucket seats and a storage console for binoculars and a camera. She also designed Shalimar, a top-of-the-line Limited four-door hardtop painted deep royal purple with an interior of purple and black leather and a special purple cloth. It also had a robe that could be stowed in the backside of the front bench seat and even a swing-out dictaphone in the glove box.

Peggy Sauer created the Oldsmobile Fiesta Carousel station wagon in a metallic blue with matching interior. Carousel was designed with children in mind, and it featured a magnetic game board that could be attached to the back of the front seat. Sauer placed umbrella holders in the front doors and also located parent-friendly controls on the dashboard for the rear-seat door latches and window switches. Meanwhile, her Rendezvous Ninety-Eight convertible was finished in metallic rose with matching rose leather upholstery.

""We enjoyed proving to our male counterparts that we are not in the business to add lace doilies to seat backs or rhinestones to the carpets." -Sue Vanderbilt"

From the Pontiac Studio, Sandra Longyear designed a Star Chief hardtop called the Bordeaux in a deep maroon. It had asymmetrically trimmed leather-upholstered seats and a unique system of leather trunk straps to hold groceries. 
Her Bonneville Polaris convertible was finished in a color she called Starfire Blue. It featured bucket seats finished in two-tone blue leather as well as a storage compartment for picnic gear.

Sue Vanderbilt created two Cadillacs. Her Saxony convertible was finished in a gray-green metallic with a matching cloth- and leather-trimmed interior, which featured storage pockets in the seat backs. She also did an Eldorado Seville coupe called the Baroness in black with a black vinyl top. It had a custom black-and-white interior with carpeting and seat trim of black Mouton and was even fitted with 
a telephone.

Top honors in the subsequent popularity vote went to Jeanette Linder's Impala Martinique. Glennie's Fancy Free Corvette, which finished third, is the only car to have managed to withstand the test of time. This 1958 Corvette (a model originally styled by AUTOMOBILE's Robert Cumberford) has recently been restored to its original condition, seasonal seat covers and all.

Shortly after the Feminine Auto Show, the Damsels of Design lost their benefactor. Harley Earl retired in 1958, and his successor, Bill Mitchell, did not share Earl's enthusiasm for female designers. Most of the Damsels moved on to other companies. All of the women were successful in their subsequent careers, and their accomplishments are still celebrated from time to time in special displays by either GM or various museums.

One Damsel stayed at GM. Sue Vanderbilt became assistant studio chief at Cadillac and then went on to the Advanced Studio before leaving the company to earn her MFA at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. When she returned to GM, she found herself demoted and started over as a senior designer at Chevy. Undaunted, she worked her way up to being the first female studio chief at GM, taking control of Chevrolet Interior Studio II in 1971. Illness forced her early retirement in 1977.

The immediate results of the Feminine Auto Show were minimal. Buick paid tribute to Marjorie Ford Pohlman's concept, Shalimar, by naming a shade of blue after it for the 1959 model year, and the pleated bucket seats of Sandra Longyear's Pontiac Bonneville Polaris convertible inspired the tri-tone buckets that appeared in the 1959 Bonneville. But the long lens of the modern era is more telling, as many of the special features that the Damsels promoted—child-proof doors, makeup mirrors, retractable seat belts, and storage consoles—have found their way into contemporary automobile design.

Perhaps the whole adventure is best summarized in the words of Sue Vanderbilt, in an address she gave back in the day to the Midwest College Placement Association: "Not too long ago, management gave the women designers at GM Styling the opportunity to express our viewpoints on cars designed especially for the woman. But I think the most significant thing about this program is that the designs were as appealing to the men who saw them as the women. It was a designer's paradise, and we particularly enjoyed proving to our male counterparts that we are not in the business to add lace doilies to seat backs or rhinestones to the carpets, but to make the automobile just as usable and attractive to both men and women as we possibly can."

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