Born: Sara Rosen Parnis, in Brooklyn, New York, 18 March 1902. Education: Briefly studied law, Hunter College, New York. Family: Married Leon Livingston (originally Levinson) in 1930. Career: After high school, worked in sales for a blouse manufacturer, then as stylist for David Westheim Company, New York, circa 1928-30; Parnis-Livingston ready-to-wear established, New York, 1933; launched own label, 1940s; boutique line added, 1970; Mollie Parnis Studio Collection ready-to-wear line added, 1979; firm closed, 1984; first loungewear collection, Mollie Parnis at Home, designed for Chevette, New York, 1985; Molly Parnis Livingston Foundation established, 1984. Died: 18 July 1992, in New York.
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Mollie Parnis belongs to the first generation of American fashion designers to be known to the public by name rather than by affiliation to a department store. Her clothing became standard in the wardrobes of conservative businesswomen and socialites of the mid-20th century. Parnis herself was one of these women; she understood what women wanted to wear and what they required to appear appropriately dressed, yet feminine.
Parnis was a success in the fashion industry from the start. During her first job as a salesperson for a blouse manufacturer, she showed a keen interest in design details, as well as a good sense of what might sell. She was promoted to a design position with the firm in a short period of time. Her ability to determine what fashion would be successful served her throughout her career, spanning over 50 years in the industry. When she and her husband, Leon Livingston, started their own business just prior to World War II, the prospects for any new clothing wholesaler seemed dim. They knew, however, that one of the keys to success was specialization, so Parnis-Livingston limited its line to women's dresses and suits, which were immediately successful.
The look of Mollie Parnis clothes was conservative and classic. In the 1950s she was known for her shirtwaist dresses and suits in luxurious-looking fabrics that spanned seasons and made the transition from office to dinner. She also employed whimsical, all-American combinations such as menswear wool with silk fringe in some of her evening dresses. Though not always a design innovator, she was a consistent provider of well-made, highly wearable clothes. She interpreted the contemporary silhouette with her conservative good taste and her sensibility to the busy American woman's desires and needs.
United States First Ladies, from Mamie Eisenhower to Rosalyn Carter, were Parnis customers. One dress in particular received national attention in April 1955 when Mrs. Eisenhower arrived at a Washington reception wearing a Mollie Parnis shirtwaist of blue and green printed taffeta, only to be greeted by another woman in the same dress. Parnis expressed her embarrassment over the situation, but explained to the New York Times in April 1995: "I do not sell directly to any wearer, nor do I usually make one of a kind; that is what makes this country a great democracy. But I do feel that the First Lady should have something special." There had been minor variations made to Mrs. Eisenhower's dress alone, but approximately 90 dresses of the similar style were shipped to U.S. stores.
Though other designers were hired by the firm eventually, Parnis remained the originator of themes and ideas, and the final editor of her design staff's creations. Eleanor Lambert described her as having "an architect's eye for proportion" and the ability to endow mass-produced clothing with a custom-made look. Like many designers who were successful in the long run, she avoided trendy looks in the service of her customers who came to expect fashionable clothing that would last for more than one season. Mollie Parnis used her own life as inspiration and guide for her work. She stated her design philosophy in Barbaralee Diamonstein's Fashion: The Inside Story (1985): "Being a designer is being a personality. It's creating a look you like, that your friends like, that belongs to the life that you know."
Parnis' life exemplified the successful and civic-minded businesswoman in New York. In addition to her career as an award-winning fashion designer, she founded several philanthropic organizations. Through her design work and her membership in such organizations as the Council of Fashion Designers of America, she played a role in the promotion and success of the American fashion industry.
—Melinda L. Watt