Piggy” Lambert’s sister created the International Best-Dressed List.


It was 1940, Nazi Germany had invaded France, the Parisian fashion industry was effectively shuttered, and the annual poll of the city’s dressmakers to determine the best-dressed women was about the last thing on any European’s mind.

Eleanor Lambert saw an opportunity.

The younger sister of famed Purdue Coach and John Wooden mentor Ward “Piggy” Lambert W’1911 had established herself in New York City’s rising fashion industry. She queried dressmakers, fashion editors, and other fashion elites; tabulated the results; and released those results through the New York Dress Institute. The International Best-Dressed List was born.

How did a young woman from Crawfordsville with no money and no connections in the world of high society come to dominate the world of haute couture?

BORN IN 1903, Lambert was the younger sister of talented athletes and as driven in her life’s work as they were in theirs. She drew sketches for the Crawfordsville High School yearbook, made extra money selling sandwiches to Wabash students out of the Scarlet Inn, and used those funds to enroll at the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis.

While at Herron, she met a handsome young architect—whom she would later describe as “my ticket out of town”—and they eloped and moved to Chicago, where they both studied briefly at the Art Institute.

In 1925 with $200 and the ignorance of youth, they took off for New York City. The marriage ended amicably some years later, but Lambert was where she wanted to be. She worked two jobs—one at a fashion newsletter and the other designing covers for books. Blessed with a gift for spotting talent, she started making connections and a name for herself. Her book-design boss suggested she start her own business promoting the work of others. Armed with her Midwestern work, she represented many names we still know today. Within five years her client list included the American Art Dealers Association and the brand-new Whitney Museum of American Art.

LAMBERT SAW fashion as just another expression of art, and that’s where she turned in the 1930s. It was a time when American clothing designers were anonymous, their work based on French style and sold under the manufacturer’s name. With war in Europe, the fashion industry in New York feared declining sales. The New York Dress Institute wanted to create demand for their products. They hired an advertising agency that put together ads attempting to shame women into dress shopping. It was an appalling campaign. Leaders of the group insisted they try using Lambert to build their brands.

So Lambert put her talent to work in a bid to revamp the fashion industry. She created the Couture Group of the New York Dress Institute, comprising a few fashion elites from New York. Her secret: “I believe I have a knack for giving names to things, and I am enthusiastic enough to get other people to run with an idea and turn it into a reality.”

And they did. Lambert made all the right connections and used them to highlight American fashion. One of her most influential contributions, still going strong today, is Fashion Week in New York City.

Then, of course, there’s the Best-Dressed List. Here’s how she announced that first one: “The selection was for many years compiled in Paris, but was taken over this winter for the first time by the key designers, fashion authorities, and members of the fashion press in New York, as the world’s new style center.” The list became a powerful vehicle for press coverage of the newly invigorated New York fashion industry.

ONE COLLEAGUE described Lambert as tougher than any man he knew, and called her the “Godmother of the Fashion Mafia.”

“There wasn’t a soul on Seventh Avenue who didn’t have Eleanor behind her,” he said. “If you couldn’t afford her, and you wanted her, she’d work for free.”

Designer Oleg Cassini declined her services: “What a huge mistake! I paid dearly for it. Eleanor never forgave me. It was a long exile.”

Those who worked with her adored her, and one described her as “very fair, very smart.” Lambert now moved in rarefied circles, even helping Princess Grace of Monaco select her trousseau.

Lambert worked most of her long life. In 2002, when she was 99, she finally closed her office. Her last public appearance was during Fashion Week in 2003, and she ordered a new jacket from Geoffrey Beene. She died just a few weeks later. Tireless and devoted to her clients and her friends, she loved her work, and her legacy lives on in the groups she helped to create.

Not bad for a small-town girl with big-city dreams!

—Beth Swift