The most innovative designs make us wonder how we ever lived without them. They welcome us into the future with bold, new ideas that are user-centric and forward-thinking.
Consider how we ever managed to drive without cup-holders for so long or how wondrous it is to sit in chairs with ergo dynamic back-support and made from environmentally-sustainable materials.
These so-called “out-of-the-box” ideas are the trademark of innovators and women like Helen Dryden, one of America’s most prolific illustrators, creators and industrial designers of the twentieth century. Her influence spanned three different industries and, in many ways, turned expectations for women upside down.
But success did not happen overnight. It came from hard work, foresight and intellectual genius. She mapped an unusual and unique career path as a self-taught, Baltimore-born artist (1882-1972) who moved to New York in 1909. Hoping to create fashion illustrations for Vogue magazine, she wanted to make her mark in the world beyond the affluence of her family circumstances.
Initially, Vogue rejected her art nouveau and art decor design submissions, criticizing her unconventional style. When Conde Nast purchased Vogue a year later, Dryden’s drawings were discovered buried in the archives.
Immediately, Dryden was hired as a lead creative design artist and fashion editor. She produced over 100 fantastical covers, establishing her as the voice of fashion until 1923. Beyond the pages of Vogue, she also designed covers for Vanity Fair and House and Garden.
Her art spoke to women who were curious about exotic lifestyles and theatrical costuming after WWI had ended. They could live vicariously in popular European and Asian fashion designs, free to move and dream beyond the confines of prevailing gender-biases. Dryden’s insight mirrors what many women love about modern, haute-couture, fashions for many of the very same reasons.
Dryden’s ideas and talents went beyond the fashion industry and, as early as 1914, she was already identifying new opportunities. The growing influence of photographic art was starting to eclipse fashion illustrations so she started exploring the theater world and Broadway costuming.
Of course, Dryden’s talents were a natural fit. By the early 1920s, her wildly extravagant and colorful costumes roared across Broadway stages. Two of her highly acclaimed costumes heralded her genius: one for Ethel Barrymore and another for a Russian Ballet production. The Clare de Lune play starring Barrymore was a success as much for Dryden’s costuming as for Barrymore’s presence. The costumes she designed for the Russian Ballet, including the highly acclaimed white peacock, were imitated in countless other ballet productions and street replicas.
Dryden continued to explore new fields including industrial design in housewares, designing for the Revere Company in 1925. She dabbled in tableware, lamps and other items making her a recognizable brand name. Remember, this was a half-century before the advent of designers like Martha Stewart or Kate Spade, women heralded as forerunners in branded merchandising.
During the great market crash in 1929, when most designers were suffering, Dryden was financially insulated by her fame. In an unprecedented move, Studebaker hired her in 1934 to stylize two of their car interiors, the Dictator and the President. Using clean and elegant lines, Dryden became so well respected that Studebaker used her name in marketing pitches and advertisements to market their cars.
By 1937, Helen was the lead designer for Studebaker’s model cars, in an industry sector dominated by men. It didn’t take long for advertisers to reach out, excited about a woman designing and selling cars. This was truly groundbreaking. Dryden had established herself as an affluent, accomplished artist with impeccable taste that New Yorkers trusted.
Studebaker tag lines like “styled by Helen Dryden” earned her a reported $100,000 at a time when most people were struggling to get back on their feet. This salary is remarkable when you calculate the present value in 2020; just under $2 million. According to one automobile trade magazine, Dryden’s influence was so well accepted as the voice of what women wanted in the car industry: “with womankind influencing the sale of automobiles in greater numbers today than ever before.”
As one of America’s highest paid artist in the 1930s and the “only woman to invade man’s domain – automobile production,” Dryden’s success seemed limitless. That is, until she dropped out of sight, overnight. The daughter of wealthy parents who had made their fortune in the sugar refining business, Dryden became embroiled in a huge scandal. The family name and social standing was wiped out after her father’s very public attempt to swindle investors.
Dryden’s reputation fell apart and by 1940, she disappeared from the public. Some records indicate that by the 1950s, Dryden was living in a cheap hotel room financed by New York’s Welfare Department. Whether or not it was the shame from her family’s circumstances, or money Dryden had used to help clear the debts, remains uncertain after her death in 1972.
What is clear is that despite her strange absence from history, the barriers she shattered as a successful designer engineered new roles for women in several industries. Her creative genius and influence illustrates how women can transform the world when given the same opportunities as men.
Editor’s note: Curious fans of Dryden’s story will enjoy reading Fiona Davis’ best-selling novel, The Masterpiece. Clara Darden is the quasi-fictionalized character of the real-life Helen Dryden.