‘Designing Women: Fashion Creators and Their Interiors’ Review: Homes in High Style


Fashion designers love the jump from homo sapiens to home, which liberates them from necklines, hemlines, and everything in between. One thinks of the über-modernist Halston, the floors and furniture in his

Paul Rudolph

townhouse sheathed in lean industrial gray, flocks of white orchids sailing in the stillness. Or of the changeless

Bill Blass,

the masculine classicism of his poised Sutton Place living room an escape from the WASP shmattes demanded by his East Side clientele. Or of the quixotic

Karl Lagerfeld,

chasing one period vision after another through serial homes decorated to the nth degree, costly statements of style that bored him once done. These postwar men were actually following in female footsteps.

Table of Contents

Designing Women: Fashion Creators & Their Interiors

Museum at FIT

Through May 14

In the Museum at FIT’s exhibition “Designing Women: Fashion Creators & Their Interiors,” the museum’s deputy director

Patricia Mears,

who organized the show, proposes a connection between female fashion designers—specifically those who used their salons and personal spaces as embodiments of their brand—and the rise of interior decoration as a field, one that was particularly welcoming to women. As Ms. Mears explains in her opening text, “Beginning in the late nineteenth century, an increasing number of women founded important couture houses in Paris, London, and New York. At the same time, interior decoration became a viable profession thanks to female innovators on both sides of the Atlantic.”

It’s a fascinating thesis, an early history of female achievement and influence, but it’s not easy to illustrate. The interiors no longer exist, except for a handful preserved in museums—the

Jeanne Lanvin

rooms, for instance, at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris. Introducing pivotal fashion designers chronologically, the exhibition presents examples of relevant clothing along with photographs of interiors, sleuthed from many sources. This works well enough, but inevitably leaves one wanting more (a book, perhaps?).

A dominant note sounds at the entrance. Just inside the Fashion & Textile History Gallery, an intimate L-shaped space, a small platform holds a Belle Époque afternoon dress from 1892. It’s a black silk hourglass with an underskirt and sleeves of celadon silk damask, the kind of 18th-century fabric that would be at home on a fauteuil or the walls of a Paris drawing room. “Rather than espouse masculine modernism,” Ms. Mears writes, “these ‘great lady decorators’ appropriated the refined aesthetics of eighteenth-century French interiors.”

Boué Soeurs evening dress (c. 1919) and Jeanne Lanvin evening dress (winter 1928)


The Museum at FIT

From here the exhibition moves through five sections, beginning with at-home dresses and nightgowns from the late 1700s to the late 1800s, all containing elements of either Rococo or Neoclassical design. A copy of a painting by

Jean-François de Troy,

“La Lecture de Molière” (c. 1728), pictures attentive women cozy and relaxed, reclining on up-to-the-minute upholstered chairs, an innovation, along with sofas and small tables, that changed the way women used their interiors.

The next section looks at the late 1800s. The couture houses of

Jeanne Paquin

and Callot Soeurs established neo-Rococo salons, bypassing the grandeur of Louis XIV to draw from the more livable designs of Louis XV and XVI styles. No doubt these rooms, with their crystal chandeliers and conservatory windows, impressed clients for whom the Age of Absolutism was the fount of all fashion.

In the early 1900s we meet Lucile, a British designer otherwise known as Lady

Duff Gordon.

Along with gowns, she promoted lingerie, racy pieces that were presented in her private Rose Rooms—curtained boudoir settings complete with daybed and dressing table, a staging that allowed clients a “virtual” experience of their potential purchase. Lucile’s London fashion house, distinctively painted with pale gray walls (Christian Dior would do the same when he launched in 1947), was formative inspiration for her close friend

Elsie de Wolfe,

the first professional “lady decorator.” De Wolfe, however, never acknowledged Lucile’s influence.

Dress (1997), kaftan ensemble (2012) and a photo of Anna Sui, who designed both


The Museum at FIT

The fourth and fifth sections move into the 1920s and ’30s with renowned women (and their interiors) such as Jeanne Lanvin (that purply-blue bedroom with Deco-ish white traceries!),

Madeleine Vionnet

(her Moderne living room of burnished geometries) and Coco Chanel (gold accents, brown velvet, dark lacquer—a fire in a forest). These women collaborated with male decorators to achieve their unforgettable rooms—respectively, Armand-

Albert Rateau,

Jean-Michel Frank

and their peers at Maison Jansen. A surprise are the mesmerizingly avant-garde interiors of two milliners—

Jeanne Tachard,

whose decorator was

Pierre Legrain,


Agnès Rittener,

who worked with the lacquer artist

Jean Dunand.

In the back gallery the exhibition leads up to the present, covering more than 20 designers, among them

Elizabeth Hawes,

Lily Daché,

Sybil Connolly,

Pauline Trigère,

Elsa Peretti,

Bonnie Cashin

and ending with

Anna Sui,

a magpie of historicism whose Greenwich Village apartment is a continuing project of reinvention. Some of these interiors you may already know.

Mollie Parnis’s

blush-pink living room, designed by the great

Billy Baldwin.

Pauline de Rothschild’s

enchanted chinoiserie bedroom. Before she was a baroness she was

Pauline Potter,

a dress designer at Hattie Carnegie. Her decorating taste and chic had an enormous impact on Baldwin, a friend who always gave her credit.

So the connections go round and round, a swirl of clothes, rooms and women, who in turn influenced men. This surge of convergence and emergence is captured in dashing original illustrations by

Bil Donovan,

created for the exhibition. He takes three of the interiors and imagines them draped on a dress form. We don’t just live in our rooms, we wear them too.

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