Parnis, Sarah Rosen (“Mollie”)

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Parnis, Sarah Rosen (“Mollie”)

(b. 18 March 1899? in New York City; d. 18 July 1992 in New York City), philanthropist and fashion designer whose designs were worn by several first ladies.

Parnis, the eldest daughter of Austrian immigrants Abraham and Sarah Parnis, grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Her early years were spent in poverty, and at the age of eight Parnis worked odd jobs to help her parents and four siblings. Her earliest jobs included tutoring English to immigrants for twenty-five cents an hour.

Parnis informally entered the fashion industry when Leonard Livingston asked her out to a football game. Excited about the date, Parnis begged her mother to buy her a dress. After the game Livingston decided they should go dancing and, unaware that Parnis was wearing the only dress she owned, suggested that she go home and change. Undaunted, Parnis went into her room, and by changing the neckline and adding a lace collar and an artificial flower, she turned the dress into a completely new outfit, her first Parnis creation. The couple went dancing that night and continued dating throughout high school. They married in 1930 and had one son.

After graduating from Wadleigh High School, Parnis entered Hunter College and took courses in pre-law. During her sophomore year she found a summer job as an assistant saleswoman at a blouse manufacturer. Parnis enjoyed the position so much she never returned to college, a decision she later regretted. At the age of eighteen, young and eager, she made suggestions to the designers. When the firm opened another department, the designers gave Parnis the opportunity to design blouses. Her next job was at a dress house, where she designed dresses while working in the showroom.

In 1933 Parnis and her husband decided to venture into the fashion industry together. With $10,000 they started their own partnership named Parnis-Livingston. Although she could not sketch, cut, or drape, Parnis created the designs while Livingston dealt with the finances. The first year of business was a success, and according to Parnis, Parnis-Livingston sold over $1 million in volume. With business faring well, Parnis hired other designers but continued to oversee operations as the fashion director. Parnis-Livingston designs were recognized as fashionable, classic dresses made of superior fabrics for the well-to-do woman. Never a trendsetter, Parnis made dresses that were timeless and could be worn over and over. In fact she encouraged women to avoid fashion fads.

During the 1940s and 1950s Parnis’s designs sold at stores such as Bloomingdale’s and Bergdorf-Goodman. Parnis-Livingston competed against major fashion designers, including Parnis’s sister Jerry Parnis. Mollie Parnis’s dresses became so popular that they were known by her name alone. Her designs reached the height of popularity in 1955, when her client, First Lady Mamie Eisenhower, and another woman appeared at a reception wearing the same blue-green silk taffeta Parnis-Livingston evening gown. When asked about the incident, Parnis casually replied: “I do not sell directly to any wearer. Nor do I usually make one of a kind, that’s what makes this country a great democracy.”

Parnis closed Parnis-Livingston in 1962 after the death of her husband and partner. For three months she was out of the fashion business. When a friend told her that she stood out from other New York widows because she worked, Parnis was motivated to reopen her business, renaming it Mollie Parnis, Incorporated. In 1979 she introduced a cheaper line targeted to the working woman called Mollie Robert after her son, Robert Livingston. Other lines quickly followed, including a “couture” line, which she simply called Mollie Parnis, and her inexpensive line, Mollie Parnis Studio. She attempted to retire in 1984 but quickly returned to work, creating her first loungewear collection at Chevette Lingerie, which was owned by her sister Peggy.

Throughout her career Parnis designed for First Ladies Lady Bird Johnson, Mamie Eisenhower, Pat Nixon, and Betty Ford. Parnis was also known as a great hostess, entertaining members of high society, journalists, and politicians. Her Park Avenue duplex became one of the most popular salons in New York City, renowned for her election night parties. Sadly the parties ended for Parnis in 1979, when her son, Robert, died.

A noted designer and art collector, Parnis was also known for her philanthropic activities. She donated money to fashion schools and founded the Council of Fashion Designers of America. A 1967 visit to Jerusalem after the Six-Day War inspired Parnis to start a foundation to clean up the streets of Jerusalem. She expressed her idea to the mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, and soon the successful project was implemented. After Parnis told the New York City mayor John Lindsay about the Jerusalem project, Lindsay appointed her as the chair of the Dress Your Neighborhood project in New York City. Parnis even had an office in city hall. Each year the project awards $50,000 to underprivileged neighborhood organizations that have improved their surroundings.

Despite her success, Parnis regretted her decision not to finish college. She once lamented that she wished she had become a journalist. As a tribute to the memory of her son, Robert, who also shared her love for journalism, she founded the Livingston Journalism Award in 1980. The Livingston award is a cash prize given to journalists under the age of thirty-five for outstanding achievement in print, broadcast, and news media reporting. Parnis died of congestive heart failure.

Throughout her life Parnis demonstrated that hard work, discipline, and courage lead to achievement. As a young woman with limited means, she knocked down barriers as an entrepreneur in an era when few women appeared in the workplace. With a shrewd business sense and an astute understanding of fashion, she created an empire with her husband and expanded it after his death. Although she became a member of high society and mingled with the wealthy, she never forgot her modest beginnings. An entrepreneur, designer, and philanthropist, Parnis redefined fashion and the role of women.

Parnis’s accomplishments in fashion and her philanthropic activities are discussed in Current Biography 1956 (1957). Marylin Bender, The Beautiful People (1967); Barbra Walz and Bernadine Morris, The Fashion Makers (1978); Barbaralee Diamonstein, Fashion: The Inside Story (1985); Colin McDowell, McDowell’s Directory of Twentieth Century Fashion (1987); and Elinor Slater and Robert Slater, Great Jewish Women (1994). Obituaries are in the New Yor/(Times (19 July 1992), the Wall Street Journal (20 July 1992), and Time (3 Aug. 1992).

Sabine Louissaint