Muriel King: Artist of Fashion
On View at The Museum at FIT in New York
March 10 April 4, 2009
Sought out in the 1930s and 40s by the glamorous women of Hollywood and high society, but largely overlooked today, the unique American designer Muriel King (1900-1977) will be rediscovered in Muriel King: Artist of Fashion, on view at The Museum at FIT from March 10 through April 4, 2009.
This is the first exhibition dedicated exclusively to King, whose career spanned four decades, from the 1920s to the 1960s. The exhibition and accompanying brochure, organized and curated by FIT graduate students in the Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice program, will provide new scholarship, introduce Muriel King to the general public, highlight her artistic legacy, and identify her place within fashion history.
Interestingly, Muriel King had no formal training. She did not cut, drape, or sew. Rather, she created watercolor fashion sketches detailing the construction and look of her designs, which her tailors and sewing staff then worked into garments. Muriel King: Artist of Fashion will showcase King's superb sketches, many of which now belong to the Special Collections of the Gladys Marcus Library at FIT. Also included will be her fashion designs for prominent clients, department stores, and Hollywood films. Collectively, these will display the variety of recurring design elements in King's work, including lace, cascading ruffles, and armor-inspired embellishments. A selection of garments from The Museum at FIT's collection will also be featured, as will photographs of women wearing King's clothes. Muriel King: Artist of Fashion will tell the story of King's career, emphasizing her significant contributions to both the art and business of fashion.
Born in Bayview, Washington, in 1900, King aspired even as a young girl to be an artist. She moved east when she was 19 years old to study watercolor painting and theater design at the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts. While still in school, she worked as a freelance fashion illustrator for Women's Wear Daily, Vogue, and various New York department stores. In 1927, she went to Paris, where she sketched clothes for such publications as Modes and Manners and Femina. In the early 1930s, she started designing dresses for herself. Her friends were so impressed that they encouraged her to start her own line. In 1932, she was discovered by Lord & Taylor, the first store to sell her garments. Later that year, she opened her own couture salon on East 61st Street in New York.
King's career flourished in the 1930s. In 1935, she designed the costumes that Katharine Hepburn (who was also a client) wore in the film Sylvia Scarlett. It was King's first feature film. She later reflected on the experience: "I flew out and back to California twice and worked very hard when I was there. And what designs do you think finally appeared in that picture? A cotton dress, a clown suit, and a raincoat!" In 1937, she did the gowns for the film Stage Door, which also starred Hepburn, along with Ginger Rogers and Gail Patrick. By 1938, she had made the short list of designers considered for Gone with the Wind.
During the 1940s, while continuing to design for Hollywood, King also worked for the department stores Stein and Blain and Lord & Taylor. In 1943, she designed Flying Fortress uniforms for women workers at Boeing Airlines. King retired from fashion in 1957 to return to her first love, painting.
King's fashions were particularly popular among socialites. They appreciated the sophistication and sensibility of a dress designed by Muriel King, who believed that "beauty, economy, and usefulness [are] the best rule[s] for the well dressed woman." Her clients included such notable ladies as Mrs. George Backer (Dorothy Schiff), Mrs. Philip Barry, Mrs. Baldwin Brown, Mrs. Thomas Hitchcock, Mrs. Junius Morgan, Mrs. Ralph Pulitzer, and Mrs. C.V. Whitney.
Throughout her career, King was one of a number of women fashion designers who were influential in both France and the United States. Her designs evoke a distinct interpretation of American chic, best encapsulated in her own words: "Our natural look is our national charm." Her contemporaries in New York included Valentina, Nettie Rosenstein, and Clare Potter. Among them, King is remarkable for the unusual way she designed clothes. While other designers also sketched, Muriel King created superb drawings—superior because of their structural detail.
FIT's graduate program leading to the Masters of Arts degree in Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice, prepares students for professional curatorial, conservation, education, and other scholarly careers that focus on historic clothing, accessories, and textiles. The program offers a hands-on approach to the study of fiber-based objects through a close association with The Museum at FIT.