From the 1920s to the 1960s, American couturiere Muriel King was one of America's top fashion and costume designers, sought out by Rita Hayworth, Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, and other the glamorous Hollywood glitterati.
Socialites like Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, Dorothy Schiff, and Mrs. Junius S. Morgan were among the few who could afford her pricey couture creations, and her designs appeared in films like 1935's "Sylvia Scarlett" with Hepburn, and "Stage Door" (1937) with Hepburn, Rogers & Gail Patrick. While fashion was at that time dominated by Parisians Coco Chanel and Madeline Vionnet - along with contemporaries Valentina, Elizabeth Hawes, and Clare Potter - King was instrumental in putting American style on the international fashion map.
And now, the first exhibition dedicated exclusively to the designer, MURIEL KING: Artist of Fashion, is at The Museum of FIT from March 10 - April 4, 2009.
The garments and drawings on display will illustrate the variety of recurring elements in King's work, including her subtle sense of luxury, emphasis on versatility, and innovative construction techniques. Curated and written by the graduate students in the elite Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice Program, the exhibition will not only introduce King to a new generation of fans, but will help highlight her legacy as an artist and American fashion designer.
Interestingly, Muriel King had no formal training as a fashion designer. Rather than cutting, draping, or sewing her designs, King designed "backwards" - first creating beautiful, fully-rendered watercolor sketches detailing the construction and look of her designs, which her tailors and sewing staff then used to construct her garments. Focusing on versatile looks which easily transitioned from day into evening, she was known for elegant simplicity and exquisite detailing, once remarking that "beauty, economy, and usefulness [are] the best rule[s] for the well dressed woman."
Although she set out to be a painter, fashion found her during the late 1920s in Paris, where she sketched clothes for Vogue, Women’s Wear Daily, and Femina. It was after she started designing dresses for herself, and friends repeatedly asked for her fashion assistance with their own wardrobes, that she opened her New York couture salon in 1932. A licensing partnership with Lord & Taylor followed, and during the 1940s, King continued creating ready-to-wear collections for a wide variety of department stores. At one point, she even branched out into uniforms for female factory workers at Boeing and other West Coast aerospace firms. After retiring in the late 1950s, she contented herself with her first love, painting, until her death in 1977.
If you're in NYC from March 10 through April 4, 2009, be sure to check out "MURIEL KING: Artist of Fashion" at The Museum at FIT and learn the full story of King's career and her contributions to American fashion. Admission is free and the museum is open Tuesday through Friday from noon to 8pm, and 10 am to 5pm on Saturdays. (Closed Sunday, Monday, legal holidays)
- Lesley Scott
(images from top: Muriel King sketch of evening dress design (Spring 1936) sold to Hattie Carnegie - Muriel King Archive, The Gladys Marcus Library at FIT; black bias-cut dress - antiquedress.com; Muriel King clothing label - vintagefashionguild.org; Muriel King exhibition poster - Museum at FIT on Facebook; evening dress with corselette (1938) - The Museum at FIT; "Stage Door" still - Wonders in the Dark; factory uniform designed by Muriel King - life.qoop.com; "Wooded Landscape with Hay Wagon" by Muriel King (1930) - georgeglazer.com)