Dorothy O'Hara


Dorothy O'Hara (1911-1963) was a California designer legendary for her ability to drape and flatter the feminine form. She created late day, cocktail and evening dresses for women with hourlgass figures who wanted to make an entrance. 

Dorothy and her brother Kenneth were born in Los Angeles in 1911 and 1913, respectively. Their mother, Blanche, was a dressmaker from Ohio and married James O’Hara in the fall of 1907. It appears that he was something of an unsavory character, at least in his younger years. He worked in the mining industry, probably dealing with oil. He had two children with his first wife Rose in Colorado, then moved to Los Angeles and married Blanche, but left the young family around 1915 and married another woman in Texas in 1917.

Thus, Blanche was left in Los Angeles with two very young children, and continued to work as a dressmaker. It appears that they moved around a great deal, because each year in the city directory they have a different address. Incidentally, Blanche listed herself as a widow in the city directories after James left, although he didn’t actually die until 1939. Given the stigma of divorce or separation at the time, one can’t exactly blame her, and it’s likely that she didn’t know if he was alive or dead.

Dorothy learned her craft from her mother, who worked as a dressmaker most of her life. As a student at Fairfax High School in the 1920s, she helped to organize a fashion sketch club with fellow members of a costume design class and in 1928 served as the club's vice president.

Dorothy O'Hara in her 1928 high school yearbook

Dorothy O'Hara in her 1928 high school yearbook 

 

 In 1934, Dorothy married Henry (Hank) J. Lunney, though she continued to use her maiden name professionally. Their son Falcon was born in 1935. During the 1930s and early 1940s, Dorothy worked for some small dress manufacturers in Los Angeles, including the Malouf Dress Corporation and Hunt Broughton & Hunt, Peggy Hunt’s dressmaking firm. 

Downtown Los Angeles in the 1930s

Broadway in the 1930s was an exciting place to be. Next door is the United Artists theater, which is now the Ace Hotel.

By 1945, her career had started to really take off. Dorothy and Hank established Fashion Forecast (later Dorothy O’Hara Inc.), their own manufacturing firm, 1944, while she was also working as a designer at Paramount.

 

Article about Dorothy O'Hara and her husband, Hank Lunney

She was working for Paramount as a costume designer when she showed her first collection outside California at the St. Regis Hotel in New York for Arnold Constable, at that point a long-established high-end department store. From a 1945 New York Sun article by Mabel Greene:>

“Dorothy O’Hara, youthful and talented California designer whom Arnold Constable introduced yesterday to the NewYork press, entered her profession through her widowed mother’s custom order dressmaking workrooms. Chestnut-haired Miss O’Hara has been a designer for Paramount Studios for two years and recently was re-signed on a four-year contract, with the added privilege of designing clothes for clients outside the motion picture studios. Yesterday the collection she has created for fall wear, which will be available about August 1 exclusively in New York at Arnold Constable Fifth Avenue[.]”

— Mabel Greene, New York Sun, April 20, 1945

At the same time, California clothing designers and manufacturers were continuing to organize and heavily market California fashion as unique and desirable. In the trade publication California Stylist, the local industry was proud to claim her as a native daughter, despite her first showing happening away from the West Coast.

“Lovely young Dorothy O’Hara, talented double-time fashion designer for both Paramount Studios and her own manufacturing firm, Fashion Forecast, was recently ‘discovered’ by the press of Chicago and New York when her fall collection of dresses was introduced in those two cities… The Fashion Forecast line is designed with the same deft touches, the same eye to appeal and flattery, which mark the film styles by Miss O’Hara, yet she never repeats or copies from one medium to the other.”

– California Stylist, May 1945

 Ad for Dorothy O'Hara fashions as seen in California Stylist, October 1945

 

California Stylist, November 1945

California Stylist, January 1947

The Californian, Winter 1950

With the exception of a bit of a break in the early 1950s, she was prominently featured in both advertisement and editorial in Vogue and Harper's Bazaar throughout her career. In 1953, she designed her first complete evening wear collection. She also designed the dresses in which the daughters of the Governor of California met Queen Elizabeth. In the mid-1950s, her look shifted from elegantly draped to elegantly draped with a very strong dose of sexy.

Dorothy O'Hara cocktail dress as seen in Vogue, November 1, 1956

Vogue, November 1, 1956

 

Dorothy and her husband and son moved from Beverly Hills (the house or apartment building they lived in at 8717 Burton Way has since been replaced) to Newport Beach. Specifically, they built a home on Lido Isle, a small man-made island in the Newport Beach harbor, built from an existing mudflat and developed for residential use in the early 1920s to resemble a European resort. Their single-story home was designed by Hank and architect Theodore Pletach in true California style, built around a central lanai for year-round outdoor living. A 1954 LA Times article shows pictures of the interior, but the online copies are so poor that it's impossible to make out any detail. Dorothy died in 1963 at the young age of 51.

“If this writer were asked to describe her excellent work in a single phrase, it would be: “No gingerbread.” Miss O’Hara learned her job the hard way, starting as a model and working her way through the pattern and fitting departments. Her evaluation of feminine fashions obviously includes some solid basic conclusions that some other designers might well copy, i. e., that ornateness is not fashion and that simplicity is its own elegance.”

– New York Sun, April 20, 1945