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This page will be updated periodically to feature major Art Deco era designers.

Helen Dryden

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The Revere "Candlesphere" designed by Helen Dryden

Although largely forgotten today, Helen Dryden was credited in 1925—the year of the Paris Exposition from which the term Art Deco draws its name—with having developed and popularized what is now referred to as Art Deco fashion drawing some 17 years earlier. The 1925 issue of The Biographical Cyclopaedia of American Women states

"Most of us do not realize that the gaiety of the display in the newsstand is traceable to the pioneer spirit of one woman, to her initiative which created its own demand, her perseverance in the face of opposition, her vision of an original expression of art. Helen Dryden disclaims that this innovation in magazine covers and fashion drawings, with its resulting influence on posters, window display and advertising in general, comes entirely from her. She points out that many things were working together in that first decade of the Twentieth Century. She names the Russian Ballet, seen for the first time in America, the Bakst drawings, the growing reaction against timid pastel coloring and the smug realistic traditions. Be that as it may, she is directly responsible for the decorative magazine covers, and her fashion drawings were the first to embody stylistic features into the imaginative, exquisitely executed pieces of sophistication that adorn the modern fashion periodicals.

Helen Dryden was born in Baltimore in 1887, the daughter of Celius Owings and Alice Fuller Dryden. The family moved to Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill community when Helen was about 7 years old. There, she attended Eden Hall, Torresdale, Pennsylvania and Mrs. Comegy’s School in Chestnut Hill. Even during her childhood years, young Miss Dryden showed unusual artistic ability. She designed and sold clothes for paper dolls. Eventually, she sold a set of her paper dolls and dresses to a newspaper for use in its fashion section. This, in turn, led to a position as illustrator for Anne Rittenhouse’s fashion articles in the Philadelphia Public Ledger and The Philadelphia Press.

Dryden was largely self-trained, a factor she suggests "...is why my work is so entirely my own. It is a combination of things I like, in the way I want to do them, rather than an unconscious reflection of the ideas of an admired master." Her formal education consisted of 4 years of training in landscape painting under Hugh H. Breckinridge and one summer school session as the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Deciding that she had no real interest in landscape painting, Miss Dryden turned her attentions once again to fashion drawing. She found, however, that fashion illustrations of the day had little appeal. Even French fashion prints during the first decade of the 20th century were uninspiring, featuring men and women in knee-britches, powdered wigs, and billowing, brocaded skirts. Although fashion magazines were steadily growing in importance in America, they, like their French counterparts, featured lifeless figures drawn in a functional, realistic, and uninspiring manner solely for the purpose of displaying clothing designs.

Unhappy with the hapless fashion drawings of the day, between 1908 and 1912, Paris couturier Paul Poiret commissioned artists to illustrate his designs in a more elongated, simplified style. Although some of these fashion drawings were incorporated in booklets for Poiret’s clients, it was not until 1912 that French fashion magazines started incorporating Poiret’s techniques.

At about the same time Poiret was creating a new style of fashion drawing in Paris, Helen Dryden, expressing disappointment in the state of fashion illustration, created a portfolio of drawings using a more simplified style. Miss Dryden noted that she "...saw a chance to simplify fashion drawings to the few essential features that would embody the very essence, as it were, of the mode." After moving to New York in 1909, Miss Dryden spent a year trying to interest fashion magazines in her drawings. None, however, showed any interest in her work and many were harsh in their criticism of her work.

Miss Dryden was particularly disappointed in her rejection by Vogue. Founded in 1892, Vogue introduced innovation into fashion writing and Miss Dryden hoped that they would similarly recognize the need for change in fashion drawing. She later recalled, however, "...that cold winter morning when I was turned down by Vogue. I was very young and very poor and when the fashion editor’s secretary handed me back my drawings, saying ‘She doesn’t like them—doesn’t think they are any good,’ I left the building with tears running down my cheeks, vowing that I would never go back to Vogue. I peddled my drawings about without success for a year."

Less than a year later, however, Miss Dryden found herself back at Vogue. In the intervening year, Conde Nast had assumed management and set out to make changes. Upon seeing Miss Dryden’s drawings, he directed the fashion editor to contact her about preparing fashion drawings for Vogue. Her prior pledge quickly forgotten, Miss Dryden agreed. After her initial fashion drawings were well received, Dryden was commissioned to prepare her first cover.

Dryden was soon under contract to Vogue and over a 13-year period ending in 1922, prepared both fashion drawings and covers. After leaving Vogue to free lance, Miss Dryden became a frequent cover artist for Delineator.

In addition to her prolific career as an illustrator, Miss Dryden launched a successful career as a costume designer. In 1914 she designed the costumes and scenery for the musical comedy "Watch Your Step" starring Vernon and Irene Castle. This was followed by designs for several other stage plays, including "Claire de Lune," the fanciful drama based loosely on Victor Hugo’s romance. Although the play starred Lionel and Ethyl Barrymore, Helen Dryden’s costume designs were generally given equal credit for the play’s success.

Like many other noted artists and stage designers such as Norman Bel Geddes, Lurelle Guild, and Russel Wright, Helen Dryden turned her attention to industrial design following the 1925 Paris Exposition although she also continued her career as a freelance artist. Her industrial design accomplishments include a candleholder and lamp designed for Revere. It was her design of the 1937 Studebaker President, however, that established Helen Dryden as an important industrial designer. Studebaker ads proudly proclaimed the fact that the car had been designed by Helen Dryden. Dryden went on to become Art Director for Dura Products, a major automotive parts manufacturer that also dabbled in giftware manufacture.

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Ad for the 1937 Studebaker designed by Helen Dryden.