Mollie Parnis (d. 1992), a mid-twentieth century New York designer who dressed First Ladies and movie stars, once told a reporter, "The last thing I want to talk about is what people are wearing." A curious sentiment for a woman who spent her entire life in the fashion industry, but Parnis was far from an average designer. At the height of her career, the Park Avenue home she shared with her husband and business partner, L. J. Livingston, became a modern-day salon, with visits from politicians, journalists, artists, and actors. This striking black and blue velvet appliquéd coat, a recent donation to the FIDM Museum, deviates from Parnis’ typical aesthetic, but its geometric design can be explained by her lifelong devotion to the arts.
Mollie Parnis, American
Gift of Coralee Davis
Despite her reputation as one of New York’s most refined hostesses, Parnis came from humble beginnings. Her parents were Jewish Austrian immigrants, and Parnis had only a high school education when she began working as a blouse salesperson in a small store. Her husband also worked in the textile industry, and after they married in 1930 the couple started the Parnis-Livingston clothing company – she the designer, he the business manager. The company managed to thrive throughout the Great Depression, and by the end of the 1940s Mollie Parnis clothing was featured regularly in Vogue. She achieved stardom when First Lady Bess Truman wore her designs, the beginning of a flourishing relationship with the women of the White House. Parnis dressed Mamie Eisenhower for her husband's swearing-in ceremony in 1957, and supplied much of her day-to-day wardrobe. She went on to dress future First Ladies Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford, and Rosalyn Carter. When a woman wore Mollie Parnis, she knew she would be regarded as traditional, elegant, and polished – making the flamboyant pattern of the velvet coat all the more incongruous.
Mollie Parnis in her Park Avenue home with a Matisse painting from her personal collection. Via Life Magazine, 1966.