Bringing Luxury to International Travel

By Meredith Hindley

In the spring of 1940, the Marine Air Terminal opened at New York’s LaGuardia Airport. The two-story building was designed by Delano & Aldrich, who had forged a reputation for decadent Beaux Arts buildings. The terminal, however, was pure Art Deco, from the circular core that served as the waiting area to the flying fish jumping across its exterior terracotta frieze and the metal fretwork on its doors. In the waiting area, white marble floors and black marble paneling signaled luxury, while small touches, like a propeller design inlaid on the ends of the benches, nodded to the terminal’s purpose. A sweeping mural depicting the history of flight by James Brooks, created under the Works Progress Administration, gave passengers a taste of what was to come. Men and women had harnessed the heavens, and the trip they were about to take was the latest innovation in that quest.  


The terminal was home to Pan American Airways Clipper service to Europe. Its northern route to Southampton, England, via Newfoundland and Ireland took about 27 hours; the southern route, to Marseille via the Azores and Lisbon, around 44 hours. The trip cut the Atlantic crossing from a week by ship to less than two days by air. After clearing passport control, passengers exited the terminal and proceeded along a long wooden dock to board one of Pan Am’s Boeing 314 flying boats. Instead of concrete, the Clipper used the waters of Bowery Bay as its runway. The flying boat’s sleek silver exterior, thick two-story fuselage, and curved form are emblematic of the Art Deco aesthetic, but its form was actually a product of technical and logistical necessity. 


Pan Am’s passenger flights to Europe culminated a decade-long pursuit by Juan Trippe, the company’s founder. After building a business delivering mail and goods to far-flung destinations on flying boats, Trippe turned his attention to passenger travel, which necessitated a level of luxury not required by a mail sack. Trippe embraced Art Deco for Pan Am’s terminals and the flying boats’ interiors. To make the Clipper passenger routes profitable, he needed to sell technological innovation cloaked in glamor, and Art Deco’s sleek lines, rich finishes, and devotion to metals such as steel and aluminum offered the perfect aesthetic.


The first Clippers in 1931 were the brainchild of Trippe and Igor Sikorsky, an aeronautical engineer who had escaped revolutionary Russia. After building an empire in Latin America by using amphibious planes to carry mail and goods to areas lacking runaways, Trippe began to dream about carrying passengers along those routes. He wanted to do for air travel what Cunard had done for sea travel: create a luxurious experience where the journey was as important as the destination. “He had been fascinated then, and was fascinated still, by the Cunard mystique, by the romance of shipboard life, and his ambition now became to run Pan American as a kind of nautical airline,” writes Robert Daley in An American Saga: Juan Trippe and His Pan Am Empire. 


Trippe teamed up with Sikorsky to create the Sikorsky S-40, a four-engine seaplane with lavish interiors and attention to comfort that could carry 38 passengers and maintain a cruising speed of 100 miles per hour. Harking back to nineteenth century ships, Trippe dubbed his new fleet “Clipper” and infused the aesthetic with both nautical and Art Deco sensibilities. The cabin featured walls paneled in polished mahogany, which also dampened the sound and vibrations from the engines, and the furnishings were sleek and streamlined. On November 19, 1931, the first Clipper flight with paying passengers left Miami for Panama, with a stopover in Cuba. At the controls was Charles Lindbergh, who had been integral to testing the S-40. Soon Clippers were flying from Miami to Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, with stops in between. 

Recognizing that the journey needed an aura of luxury from the start, Pan Am turned to Delano & Aldrich to design a terminal for its Miami operations. The two-story white stucco building, which opened in 1934, featured black-framed windows and a frieze of rising suns and winged globes below the cornice. Elaborate Art Deco doors beckoned visitors to the main lobby, which featured a three-and-a-half-ton globe. Murals depicting historical aspects of flight decorated the walls and ceiling. An outer promenade provided the perfect spot for watching the Clippers arrive and depart from Biscayne Bay.


Always ambitious, Trippe next turned to conquering the Pacific Ocean. Unlike routes to Latin America, with numerous stopovers, the Pacific was vast. Pan Am needed a plane that could fly at least 2,400 miles, the distance from San Francisco to Honolulu. After that, the plane could island-hop to Hong Kong, Macao, and Singapore. This time the winning design came from the Baltimore-based Glenn L. Martin Company, forerunner of Lockheed Martin. With four Pratt & Whitney engines, the Martin M-130 could travel 3,200 miles in one shot, achieving a cruising speed of 157 miles per hour. 


The inauguration of Pan Am’s China Clipper passenger service in 1936 turned a journey that took at least two weeks by ship into an eight-day trip by air. From Hawaii, the Clipper stopped at Midway, Wake Island, and Guam before arriving in Manila. For the long flight, the cabin was fitted with lounges, sleeping berths, and dining tables. Four-course meals were prepared at stopover locations and served hot on the plane. A steward roamed the cabin with coffee and tea—but no alcohol—and gum for smokers, abiding by a no smoking rule. 


Passengers originally departed from an artificial harbor on Alameda Island in San Francisco Bay. In 1940, Pan Am and the China Clipper inaugurated their new home on Treasure Island, created with infill from the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition. Pan Am again turned to Art Deco to set the tone for the Treasure Island terminal. The two-story semicircular structure, made of reinforced concrete to withstand earthquakes, provided architectural drama. Its eleven narrow two-story windows in the center echoed the portico of a Greek temple, and matching reliefs by Jacques Schnier depicted a man holding an airplane. 


Even as Pan Am conquered the Pacific, Trippe eyed Europe for a route between New York and Portugal or England. The Europeans, with their own aeronautical ambitions, had no intention of allowing Pan Am to monopolize the routes, but Trippe persisted. In 1937, Pan Am teamed with Britain’s Imperial Airways to offer a route from New York to Bermuda and conducted test flights for its New York-to-Europe itinerary while awaiting delivery of its newest plane: the Boeing 314, which offered more cargo and passenger space, and increased profits.


On June 28, 1939, the Dixie Clipper’s first passenger trip left Pan Am’s terminal in Port Washington on Long Island’s Manhasset Bay. Twenty-two hours later, it landed in Lisbon. After a stopover there, the Dixie Clipper continued another six hours more to Marseille. In July, the northern route to Southampton began service. 


With the beginning of World War II in September 1939, Pan Am’s Clipper service became an escape route for refugees and Americans trying to return to the United States. The northern route, with a stopover in Ireland, was quickly shut down. The Marseille-Lisbon flight continued to operate, providing a means of escape for refugees with money and diplomats shuttling back and forth. In Asia, Japan’s territorial gains forced Pan Am to withdraw from China and curtail other routes. When the United States entered the war, Pan Am’s Clippers joined the Army Transport Command, ferrying soldiers and diplomats around the world. In January 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his staff traveled to the Casablanca Conference by Clipper. Treasure Island became an armed forces training and education center with more than four million American military personnel passing through on their way overseas. 


The war ended the Clipper’s heyday. Wartime technological innovation led to the development of the Douglas DC-4 and the Lockheed L-049 Constellation, which could travel long distances and land on the ground rather than water. After the war, Pan Am lost its monopoly on the Clipper routes that had made its rise possible. 


The Clippers may no longer fly, but the terminals remain. The Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia still hosts flights by Jet Blue and Spirit Airlines. Preservation and restoration efforts ensure that it continues to shine as an example of Art Deco design. The Florida Dinner Key terminal, abandoned after the war, became Miami’s city hall in 1954, but its grand doors were replaced by bland aluminum, and glass and acoustic tiles covered the murals and ceiling. Its massive globe was moved to the Miami Science Museum. The Treasure Island terminal operated as part of a U.S. Navy base until it closed in 1997; discussions about its redevelopment continue. All three former Clipper terminals are on either state or national registers of historic places. 













George Barbier (Artist). The Fountain of shells. Evening gown by Paquin. Gazette du bon ton: arts, modes & frivolités. Number 3. March 1914. Plate 27. TT500.G35.1914.3.27.


George Barbier. In the garden of Hesperides. Tailored suit for autumn by Paquin. Gazette du bon ton: arts, modes & frivolités. Number 11. September 1913. Plate IV. TT500.G35.1913.09.4.


George Barbier. Vichy (II) or The Puppet Game. Creations by (left to right): Callot, Jenny, Paquin, Martial et Armand, Callot, Doeuillet, Lanvin, Lanvin, Paquin, Lanvin. Gazette du bon ton: arts, modes & frivolités. Number 8-9. Summer 1915. Plate 3. TT500.G35.1915.8-9.3.

Much like Lucile, Madeleine Vionnet’s designs relied on draping fabric directly onto a model, a technique she mastered during her time at another woman-led fashion house, Callot Soeurs. In 1912, after years of working for other designers, Vionnet opened her own atelier, which unfortunately had to close in 1914 at the outbreak of World War I. While Lady Duff Gordon left Lucile Ltd. by the mid-20s, Madeleine Vionnet reopened in 1919 and became a mainstay of the fashion industry through the 20s and 30s. Vionnet was known for her technical skill and craftsmanship in construction. While many designers would work more off the concept rather than the construction, Madeleine Vionnet spent years working in a variety of couture houses honing her skills. She is best remembered for the advent of the bias-cut dress. This technique cuts fabric diagonally, allowing it to drape in a manner that follows the body's contours without the need for other fitting techniques, such as darts. The bias-cut would be used heavily throughout the Art Deco years and beyond. 


Many other female woman designers of previous decades continued to set trends after the war. In 1913 Jeanne Paquin became the first woman to receive the Legion d’Honneur in recognition of her contributions to the economy of France. Paquin had a practical element to her work, promoting comfort alongside beauty, which allowed her to push fashion toward modernity, and to remain relevant well into the 20s.


Charles Martin. The Garden Rose. Dresses by Jeanne Lanvin. Gazette du bon ton: arts, modes & frivolités. Number 7. Year 1922. Plate 55. TT500.G35.1922.1.55. 


Madeleine Rueg. The closed door. Evening gown by Madeleine Vionnet. Gazette du bon ton: arts, modes & frivolités. Number 3. Year 1924-1925. Plate 18. TT500.G35.19241925.18. 

Besides her status as the first major couturière, Paquin was also known as a fashion icon in her own right. Her success and celebrity set the stage for other designers, like Gabrielle Chanel, to make a name for themselves as both couturières and style icons. Chanel started out designing hats after receiving requests from women who coveted the styles she had made for herself. In 1913 she opened a new shop selling her fashion designs, proving that she could do more than millinery. The utility and understated style of her pieces made them especially attractive to clients during wartime, and her popularity continued to grow into the 1920s. Chanel’s simpler designs, which look classic in today’s context, were quite modern for the time. 

One of the most notable fashion trends in the 1920s was la garçonne, known to many as the flapper look. This aesthetic favored youth and comfort over more ostentatious designs of the past. La garçonne (which loosely translates as “the boyish woman”) often dressed in androgynous styles or looks suggesting sportswear, displaying the more active lifestyle women led in the years following the war.

Chanel, who at the helm of this movement often wore and designed menswear-inspired looks, was fond of using jersey fabric in her designs, and for years wore the short hairdo associated with the 1920s. Though Chanel's is the most common name to arise when discussing la garçonne, she certainly was not the only woman fashion designer promoting this style. 


Women designers continued to dominate the fashion industry throughout the 1920s. At the 1925 Paris Exposition des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes, the namesake of Art Deco, a number of the exhibitors in the fashion pavilion were woman-led houses. Lanvin, Paquin, Cheruit, Callot Soeurs, and Jenny, to name a few, exhibited there to much acclaim. One of the exhibitors who had a large impact was the artist Sonia Delaunay. 

Delaunay was a designer and painter who, along with her husband, Robert Delaunay, pioneered the art movement called Orphism, a term coined by Guillaume Apollinaire—the poet, art critic, and friend to the Delaunays—to describe the couple’s version of Cubism. Delaunay’s textiles, much like her paintings, featured bold colors and geometric patterns referring to her Ukrainian and Russian upbringing as well as the Cubist movement then revolutionizing modern painting. Delaunay titled her display at the 1925 Exposition “Boutique Simultané.” She had often described her paintings as “simultaneous contrasts” to describe her use of color and would come to describe her fashion similarly. Photographic evidence suggests that Delaunay’s dresses also had some of the shortest hemlines on display at the Exposition. Her clothing was popular not only because of her painterly perspective but also because of her designs' modern silhouettes. Her clothing was popular not only because of her painterly perspective but also because of her designs' modern silhouettes.


Delaunay’s work shows how closely tied fine arts and fashion had become, a union further evidenced in the work of Elsa Schiaparelli, an Italian designer who rose to fame in the second half of the 1920s. In 1927 Schiaparelli debuted her Trompe L'Oeil sweater, which featured a bow design woven into the sweater to appear like a collar. This design became one of her most famous, along with her collaborations with artist Salvador Dalí, who often worked with Schiaparelli to bring surrealist elements to her garments.


 J. Dory. Creation by Jenny. Les Idees Nouvelles de la Mode. Number 5. Plate 14. 1925. TT500.I3.1925.5.14. 

Schiaparelli’s playful designs contrasted starkly with her rival Coco Chanel’s little black dresses and boyish cuts. In a 1931 New Yorker article, Janet Flanner wrote about Chanel, “She says the only fabrics which take color perfectly are wool and cotton, especially cheap cotton—one of the many professional views held by her which have pained her rivals.” While Chanel’s practicality is what set her apart, Schiaparelli’s eccentricity was her calling card. Besides partnering with Dalí, Schiaparelli hired many surrealist artists, including Méret Oppenheim and Jean Cocteau, to design accessories for her. Schiaparelli truly considered fashion an art form; witness her witty and colorful designs.

Many designers saw their ateliers close with the onset of World War II. Chanel closed her doors in 1939 and wouldn’t reopen until 1954. Vionnet also closed in 1939. Schiaparelli, while not shuttering her business, was forced to flee France and move to New York temporarily. 


Artist unknown. Creation by Chéruit. In the countryside. Très Parisien: La Mode, le Chic, l’Élégance. Number 5. 1925. TT500.T7.1925.5.9.


Artist unknown. Creation by Lucile. TOP: Amethyst. Très Parisien: La Mode, le Chic, l’Élégance. Number 11. 1923. TT500.T7.1923.11.9.


Artist unknown. Creations by Schiaparelli. Très Parisien: La Mode, le Chic, l’Élégance. Plate 12. May 1933. TT500.T7.1933.05.12.


Artist unknown. Creations by Chanel. Très Parisien: La Mode, le Chic, l’Élégance. Plate 7. May 1933. TT500.T7.1933.05.7.

When it came to successful and innovative woman fashion designers, it might seem the baton was passed from Paris to New York in the 1940s. But even during the Great Depression American women had made names for themselves in fashion designs. 


Muriel King began her career as an illustrator for fashion magazines and department stores. When she began designing her own clothes, King used her skill not as a dressmaker but as an illustrator. At the urging of friends she began her own business and by 1932 had opened her couture salon in New York, which would thrive even during the depths of the Depression. Thanks to her career as an illustrator, the detail in her sketches allowed the dressmakers she employed to understand the intention in her designs. In 1935 King began designing for Hollywood films, as did many American and European designers of the time. Thanks to the international reach of Hollywood, the film industry would significantly bolster the attention paid to Americans in the realm of fashion.


While there were successful American woman designers before World War II, attention turned to them even more when women in the United States could no longer obtain French fashions because of the German occupation of Paris. The American designer Claire McCardell found success in the late 1930s and gained in popularity throughout the war, much as Chanel had during World War I. McCardell will be forever associated with the pioneering of American sportswear. Bonnie Cashin and Tina Leser earned their acclaim after the war and remained successful well into the middle of the twentieth century. Although many of the most idolized designers of the post-World War II years were men like Christian Dior and Jacques Fath, the American fashion industry and its women designers had finally gained some well-deserved recognition.


The years leading up to and between the World Wars—a golden age for women fashion designers—brought some of the most iconic styles in the history of fashion, along with some of the most outrageous personalities. While many well-regarded men also worked in fashion, during this period it is the women who captivated audiences and gained celebrity. Women will always have an important place at the table in any era of fashion history, but there was something truly special about the reign of women during the Art Deco period that remains unrivaled. 

About the Author:

Meredith Hindley, Ph.D., is a historian and author of Destination Casablanca: Exile, Espionage, and the Battle for North Africa in World War II. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, and TIME. Hindley lives in Washington, DC, in an Art Deco building. 

Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 6, Issue 1, Winter 2021. View a digital version of the full journal here.