Purchased in 1975 at Sak's Fifth Avenue Beverly Hills, this dress was worn by the donor to a family wedding. After the wedding, it was packed away and never worn again. In 2007, the original wearer donated it to the FIDM Museum. Consisting of two layers of pale, bias-cut, silk chiffon over a silk crepe slip, the dress is in excellent condition. The silhouette is deceptively demure, with thigh-high slits at each side of the skirt creating unexpected drama. The rounded shape of the hem is echoed in the sleeves, of which the lower portion was left unstitched to create a petal effect. Throughout the garment, picot edge seams are held together with hand-sewn stitches spaced 1/2 inch apart.
Though we have excellent information about the provenance of this dress, it doesn't have a label. Without the label, we can only make an educated guess regarding the designer. We've decided it was probably designed by either Holly Harp or Jean Muir. We've featured two Holly's Harp dresses on our blog, but we've never talked about Jean Muir. Muir was a British designer, though she preferred the term dressmaker. Muir began her career at the London department store Liberty, where she worked as a sketcher and saleswoman during the early 1950s. She later worked at Jaeger, and in 1962, a backer helped her established the label Jane & Jane. A 1963 Life article titled "Brash New Breed of British Designers," featured Jean Muir and other London designers, including Mary Quant, Sally Tuffin and Mary Foale. In 1966, she established Jean Muir Ltd which she ran until her death in 1995.
Muir was defiantly anti-nostalgia. In a 1971 interview she didn't mince words when discussing fashion's habit of looking to the past for inspiration: "I hate nostalgia. That's why I can't stand retrospective clothes or fashion latched onto a film."1 She had a similar distaste for the fashion dictates of Paris. In a 1970 interview she described her disenchantment with the couturiers of Paris: "I worked for Jaeger, the huge sportswear company, before I went on my own. I used to go to Paris twice a year to see the collections, to get the 'look.' Then, rather instinctively, I decided I didn't want to see Givenchy. I didn't want to work within the look."2
Muir's strong opinions about fashion didn't keep her out of the limelight. Throughout the 1970s, her work was featured in the pages of American Vogue, alongside the designs of Valentino, Sonia Rykiel, Karl Lagerfeld at Chloe and Yves Saint Laurent. Though she was well-known during her lifetime, her name isn't as widely known today, perhaps because of her penchant for understated design. Though many of her designs were crafted from fluid fabrics like wool jersey, they were never overly tight or revealing. Subtle details like topstitching, shirring or smocking created both structure and detail. Her palette tended toward solid colors, though she did design a line based on printed textiles in the mid-1970s.
So, is this a Jean Muir dress? The subtle details and monochrome palette are consistent with Muir's aesthetic. But, you could also make a strong case for it being the work of Los Angeles' own Holly Harp. Without definitive proof, we'll never know for sure. Until we unearth a documentary photo, design sketch or advertisement, all we can do is make an educated guess. Readers, what's your opinion? Does this dress suggest Holly Harp, Jean Muir or someone entirely different?
1 Luther, MaryLou. "Jean Muir Puts Style Back in 70s." Los Angeles Times 10 May 1971: E1.
2 Morris, Bernadine. "A Reunion for a Designer and Her Favorite Mannequin." New York Times 30 Dec. 1970: 31.