After graduating from the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina (present-day University of North Carolina at Greensboro) in 1940, Helen Gaines Howerton (later Helen Lineberry) attended now-defunct Traphagen School of Fashion in New York City. A recent 2019 exhibition at Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), Traphagen School: Fostering American Fashion, created a survey of the Traphagen School and its influence on fashion in the early-to- mid-20th century. While Traphagen and her school were immensely influential to fashion all over the U.S. and the world, the historical and cultural frame of her “costume design” course materials promoted a Eurocentric and white supremacist view typical for the time from when it was originally written in the 1920s. Briefly noted in the object labels of the FIT Traphagen School exhibition, cultural appropriation also contributed to the college’s philosophies. In general, however, Helen’s time at Traphagen School remains another flash point for ongoing research around her work. Helen designed and made some her own clothes, of which only one dress remains in family possession.
After her time in New York, Helen moved back to Asheville, NC and married her husband, Albert Lineberry Sr. in 1942. Helen’s fashion skills reportedly landed her occasional jobs in Asheville illustrating advertisements for local department stores. However, no official documentation of this has yet been found. Marketing and profiting from skills learned at Traphagen squares with the school’s notable ability to teach industry self-promotion to its students.
The development of her fashion skills coincides with a construction of white femininity: an anxiety noted by queer theorist Jasbir Puar while doing a studio visit with me while I was a graduate student at Hunter College. Helen’s engagement with the white female figure goes back well into her childhood drawings discussed in Part 1: a familiarity and identification with dominant imagery that simultaneously remains uneasy. Many of the subjects from Helen’s childhood persisted into her adulthood, particularly regarding fashion. Inextricably tied to her own self-understanding, Helen transforms her use of the white female figure using cartoon and caricature during World War II.