Parnis, Mollie (1905–1992)

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Parnis, Mollie (1905–1992)

American fashion designer, philanthropist, and socialite. Name variations: Mollie Parnis Livingston. Born on March 18, 1905, in New York City; died on July 18, 1992, in New York City; one of the three daughters of Abraham Parnis and Sara (Rosen) Parnis; graduated from Wadleigh High School, 1923; married Leon Livingston (a textile specialist), on June 26, 1930; children: one son, Robert.

Although she could neither draw nor sew, Mollie Parnis was one of New York's leading couturiéres for five decades, creating dresses that were understated, comfortable, and versatile. Away from her Seventh Avenue fashion house, which she started with her businessman husband Leon Livingston in 1933, Parnis presided over a Park Avenue residence that became a salon for actors, journalists, and Democratic politicians. After closing her design enterprise in 1984, the designer formed the Mollie Parnis Livingston Foundation, through which she channeled a number of philanthropic ventures.

Parnis, who was born in 1905 in New York City and raised on the Lower East Side, completed her academic education at Wadleigh High School, graduating in 1923. Although she thought about studying law, she went to work instead as an assistant saleswoman in the showroom of a blouse manufacturer, and it was there that she recognized her innate ability to design. "What happened to me could happen to any young person with something to contribute in the field of fashion," she recalled. "I got into the habit of stepping into the designing rooms and making a suggestion … adding a jabot to a blouse or changing a sleeve. Before long I was asked if I'd like to try my hand at designing." Parnis subsequently joined the dress firm of David Westheim, remaining there for 18 months. After her marriage to Leon Livingston in 1930, she retired from business for three years.

In July 1933, against the advice of friends, the Livingstons established their own firm, Parnis-Livingston, Inc. From the beginning, Livingston handled the business end of the enterprise, while Parnis tended to the designs. Since she did not draw or sew, a staff of professional designers translated her conceptions into the finished product. Limiting production to dresses alone, and manufacturing a line of wearable clothes ranging in price from $90 to $150, the venture was immediately successful. "Good fashion doesn't mean a dress is supposed to knock people backward at first glance," Parnis once said, explaining her philosophy of design. "We are not in favor of the idea that to be daring is to be fashionable. We believe that good fashion is understated, and that a woman can be unselfconscious in it." Her line included "trim little suits" and dresses with fitted waistlines and soft, full skirts. In 1955, Parnis departed from her usual design by introducing the sheath dress, which hugged the figure in a narrow silhouette.

Parnis' clientele included such notables as Mamie Eisenhower, Margaret Truman , and Sarah Churchill , as well as a number of stage and screen stars. In 1955, the designer made international headlines when Mamie and another guest appeared at a Washington party wearing the same dress. Parnis explained that she did not sell directly to any wearer and that she seldom made a one-of-a-kind dress. "That is what makes this country a great democracy," she added, in an early example of political spin.

Following her retirement in 1984 and the formation of her foundation, Parnis was involved in several philanthropic projects, among them a series of financial grants to worthy young journalists. She also provided for a series of "vest-pocket" parks in Manhattan and in Jerusalem, Israel.


Candee, Marjorie Dent, ed. Current Biography 1956. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1956.

Graham, Judith, ed. Current Biography 1992. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1992.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts