JEAN MUIR: THE QUIET REVOLUTIONARY
If you look at fashion images from the late 1960s and early 1970s, then Jean Muir was a more austere classicist than her British contemporaries Gina Fratini, Zandra Rhodes, John Bates or Yuki. Muir is careful to shield herself from the more obvious energies of her times. There is no trace of LSD in her work and the clean, focused lines of her design reach back to the 1920s and Chanel, to sixth forms and finishing schools, dancing, tennis and slender, girlish bodies.
There is a useful Norman Parkinson shot of Muir and Mary Quant and various new fashion notables from 1964. The picture was taken on the Embankment and could pass for a publicity shot for The Avengers. Everyone looks very British but also very modern and terribly crisp.
But things aren’t quite as modern as they seem. The 1960s London skyline is quite flat; there is a mist on the river, barges drift (back to Dickens) and the men in the image have suits and moustaches that speak of Oxford and boarding houses, gas fires, tweeds and the bomb-damaged post-war darkness of another England.
It might help to place Muir if you read Iris Murdoch or tried to feel the 1960s through the sensibility of the 1950s. Muir set up Jean Muir, her first company in her own name in 1966. And she is part of that weird, beautiful moment in the mid-1960s when clothes, despite the skirt length, held onto a certain formal grace while the world began to shift, more violently (watch The Yardbirds’ guitar-smashing scene in the film Blow-Up, for example – compare the violence of the scene, the violence of the coming future, to the conservatism of the fashion).
Take an early Jean Muir design – a dress for her first label, Jane & Jane. A demure, knee-length sleeveless tunic with ruffles on the collar and sleeves. It is perfectly halfway between the modern and the old. At a pinch you could relate the ruffles to Brian Jones (of the Rolling Stones), but the dress speaks more of a vanishing formality, even a vanishing femininity…
“Proper attention to dress,” said Muir, “is a sign of self-respect and respect for the order of things.” She was not afraid of voicing a certain conservatism. Fashion, she noted, was better as a verb than a noun. “To fashion.” To make. This was more to her taste than fashion as the ever-changing surface of things.
She was interested, well, more than interested, she was expert in the technique of fashion, the craft, the mechanics. She had that understanding of how fabric moves, the weight of fabric – she ordered jersey woven to her own specifications, a certain number of stitches to the inch.
“I have always enjoyed working out a very geometric or architectural shape and then ‘dropping’ it into jersey, where it immediately relaxes – is supple and giving – is human and moveable.”
People would say her jersey (a key fabric in Muir’s output) would “drop” like silk. This was her language – lambskin suede, Linton tweed, Geelong lamb’s wool, top stitching, giving flare to a pinafore dress, the pinking of seams, a certain quality of cashmere.
In reading interviews and books that speak of Muir, I have not been able to find Muir talking about the sexual and social upheavals of her time. But she does talk about fashion. As in “to make”.
“… The way the girls push the cloth through the sewing machine and they knew where the cloth has got to go and when to hold it tighter or when to stretch in slightly, and it’s innate in their fingers, and I think it is something we should appreciate infinitely more in this country… ”
In all of the photographs, over the decades, she presents the same image – same hair, same eye make-up, always the same hand beneath the chin. She is all neatness with elegant lines. There is never a hint of rock or disco, nothing off the hook, nothing undone or unhinged.
We should look at Muir as austere classicist. Born in 1928 she could sew, embroider and draw from an early age. At school they encouraged the appreciation of classical art. “If you know a marvellous Velazquez or whatever… there is a wonderful sense of proportion which unconsciously one is assimilating.”
She works her way up through office jobs and the Liberty stockroom to designer, first for Jaeger, then her own labels. She said her intention was to create ‘wholesale couture”: ready-to-wear with a couture finish or presence.
The basic take on her work is she made clothes lighter than Parisian couture; she cut down on structure, lining and fabric. So her dresses used the best cashmere and jersey but cost less than couture. And there would be no stiff, heavy architecture. The clothes facilitated flow, lightness and movement.
I love images of Muir dresses in Vogue and Queen from 1968 to 1973. Her dresses are for those spaces between boarding school and Cambridge, first job at Faber & Faber, country houses and cocktail parties. They seem quite virginal at times.
And there are sensual images and clothes. An image from Queen: tall, black model, Jane & Jane chiffon harem pants, shirred Liberty silk top. There is no escaping Morocco, hashish, nudity and Jagger in this image and this outfit.
But Muir and sex and drugs don’t easily elide. She loved those Pierrot collars, the ruffles, balloon sleeves, pleats, tight cuffs, bell sleeves, billows and classic schoolgirl tunic collars. Things are pin tucked, pleated and gathered. These clothes are not about flesh and exposure. The sex is understated. Private and discreet. Like the 1960s, but with the morality of another time.
There are photographs of the models from her Bruton Street address – opaque tights and scraped-back hair, like ballet girls. The models give off a sheen of discipline and neatness and good behaviour.
The idea of discretion and the sheen of the ballet girl; these are comfortable surfaces to wear. They give Muir’s girls the freedom to be whoever they want to be underneath or inside the clothes – the clothes do not make all the decisions for them. Or give away all their secrets.
There are women known for wearing Muir: Lady Antonia Fraser, Judi Dench, Elisabeth Frink. These are not women who are thought of (now, anyway) as style or sex figures. They are in another world.
Anyone interested in Muir should do a Google image search on Fraser and relate that back to what we know about fashion and interiors and wealth. There is a whole other way of being recorded here. If you had nothing better to do you could spend a few months dressing up like Fraser and see where it got you.
Muir seems to model herself on the maisons of Parisian couture. There is the team of well-drilled assistants. The neoclassical Georgian town house in Mayfair where she showed, twice a year, amid the high ceilings and period crystal chandeliers.
There are fashion historians and buyers in New York who talk about Muir as a kind of Chanel. And there are little black dresses by Muir so elegant that even a cigarette would spoil them. And they cling, if you wear them, when you walk or turn, close to the body, for just a moment, before they flare and dance and settle, again.
“Only when you really know your industry, really know your trade, can you then make it into what is your own kind of art… ”
Sometimes, Muir designs are not about order or conservatism; a Studio 54-type outfit of punched silver leather jacket and tight, glittering pink trousers. But it’s hard not to be moved by her quieter pieces – a 1980s coat that effortlessly recalls 1950s Dior or a cold restrictive dress with high, tight collar and close-fitting sleeves covered in tiny buttons from wrist to elbow.
Muir suggests if you want to design and make clothes you should learn the craft. McQueen made similar statements, referring to his training in tailoring. She had a dislike of mass production and prefigures the contemporary vogue for niche-ism, boutique-ism, pop-up-ism – hand-finished things that duck the mass market.
She is designing at a time of ferment – when the very poorest and most ragged are able to introduce fashions and make clothes (from hippie to disco and punk). Muir’s semi-couture works to quietly reset the traditional boundaries – she is worn now by Samantha Cameron and Sienna Miller – they love vintage Muir, those with taste and money and power.
Fashion is a “bitter satire on love”, noted Walter Benjamin. Not Muir’s. Her clothes are comfortable; they look comfortable – there is a girl/woman tension in her work, but we all know the pain of growing old. But there is love – the love for craft, material and design, the love for the way clothes move on the body, the love for discretion, stability and security. And there is nothing bitter about this love; the woman and world her clothes suggest are bathed in graceful light.
Quotations and inspiration from the excellent Jean Muir: Beyond Fashion by Sinty Stemp (Antique Collectors’ Club)
by Tony Marcus