In celebration of Women’s History Month, Cooper Hewitt is dedicating select Object of the Day entries to the work of women designers in our collection.
Helen Dryden (1883–1972) was an American artist, fashion and costume illustrator and designer, illustrator, and designer in the early 20th century through the 1940s. The Cooper Hewitt National Design Library collects resources on decorative arts and design. We have a wealth of materials that includes World’s fairs publications, periodicals, and original source materials relating to Art Deco and 20th century design. While researching our collection in this era, the name Helen Dryden started popping up. I got curious, and discovered in the pages of our serials and other materials her amazing and varied career. In her early career, she was known as a fashion illustrator, most notably designing covers and illustrations for Vogue Magazine from 1909–22, and then designed the covers for the fashion and dressmaking magazine The Delineator, published by Butterick’s.
Helen Dryden’s wide-ranging talents and interests seem to touch down everywhere — in art schools, theaters, exhibitions and competitions. She designed wallpaper, textiles, decorative art panels and murals before beginning a new career as an industrial designer. Her work was greatly inspired by 18th-century French society, design and dress and she visited Paris before the outbreak of WWI, and again to visit the 1925 Paris International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts. In 1916 Dryden was called the “Witch of Color” in a review of Watch Your Step, a musical starring Irene and Vernon Castle. The costumes she designed were “spellbinding” and “bewitched” the audience. She also designed costumes for a Broadway production Claire de Lune starring Ethel and Lionel Barrymore.
When the Grand Central School of Art in New York City opened in October of 1924, she was one of its first instructors, listed as a costume designer. In 1927, New York City department store R.H. Macy’s held the “Exposition of Art in Trade” to demonstrate the influence of merchants on the designs of the manufactured goods they sold, the connection between art and commerce, and the ability of consumers to fill their homes with everyday beauty. A Helen Dryden silk patterned textile design appeared in the show. Titled “Accessories,” the pattern incorporated aspects of modern life that included high hats, high heels, taxicabs and cocktail shakers. She designed textiles for the Americana Collection of Stehli silks.
Hers is not a household name today. I had never heard of her, there are no monographs or major articles written about her. She’s rarely if ever mentioned in the literature of the history of design. She was famous and a household name in her day, and one of the highest paid designers in America at one time. Like so many designers, she has faded into obscurity and anonymity in the fast paced modern world.
Elizabeth Broman is the Reference Librarian at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Library.
 “Witch of Color,” Bruno’s Weekly, Volume 3, Number 8, 5 August 1916