Mostly forgotten today Muriel King, an illustrator turned designer, was on the rise during the 1930s.
She was born in 1900 in Bayview, Washington. While attending university as an art student, she designed theater costumes. She later moved to New York City where, at the beginning of the 1920s, she worked as a fashion illustrator for magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar for the leading department store Bonwit-Teller.
She entered the world of fashion design in 1932 when she opened her couture salon on East 61st street. That same year she was chosen by Lord & Taylor to design an exclusive ready-to-wear line. The following year B. Altman sold an entire collection ranging from evening gowns, bathing suits and even skating outfits, all designed by King herself.
It was her background as artist and illustrator that informed her sense of color and shape. Her designs were fluid and streamlined. King had a modern sensibility that emphasized clean lines and long-lasting elegant simplicity. Her ability to identify a change in the taste and the needs of young American women helped her not only to survive the Great Depression, but also to become a great success at a time when most other houses had to close down.
King was not the only designer during the 1930s to promote the “day-into-evening” dressing, but she certainly was one of the most successful at it. She designed her dresses clean of any unnecessary trimmings and embellishments, and with the aim that the client will be able to use it for at least five years without appearing dated or unfashionable. The accessories she created to go with them transformed the dresses and updated them from season to season.
This approach to fashion design was right for its time, Kings dresses were by no means inexpensive, yet during these years of great economic hardship women flocked to her for the versatility of the clothes and their long-lasting chic. As this article in Vogue from 1932 states:
Muriel King who made the evening dress shown on this page, carries out this idea in all the clothes she shows. When you buy a dress from she will show you sketches of innumerable jackets and scarfs and other accessories, and samples of colours and colour schemes. You may order as many as you like, and she will make hats, bags, and shoes to go with them.
King lacked formal training in fashion design, which is quite surprising when studying her exquisitely crafted garments. Instead of draping or cutting like some designers, King beautifully illustrated in watercolor, the designs were then interpreted by her team into pattern and cut.
According to the Museum at FIT this jacket and skirt are “made from a simple striped fabric that King had cut and reassembled at a 45 degree angle. This technique, known as “mitering,” was popular with leading couturiers. This and other examples that exist at the Museum at FIT are complex in construction and are masterfully executed, despite the fact that King did not have formal knowledge in pattern making or that she did not drape or sew.
In 2009 the graduate students of this program, in collaboration with the Museum at FIT, curated the first exhibition to solely focus on King’s work and life. The exhibition featured garments from the museum’s permanent collection along side King’s beautiful illustrations which are housed the Gladys Marcus Library’s Special Collections and FIT Archives.
In the 1940s King left New York and moved to Hollywood where she created costumes for film. Until her retirement in the 1950s she continued to design lines for various department stores. The last two decades of her life were dedicated to painting, although she became famous as a fashion designer she always saw herself as an artist.
Calahan, April. Muriel King: The Artist of Fashion, exhibition catalog
The Museum at FIT, collections database