Edward Molyneux was a British fashion designer whose fashion house was in operation from 1919 until 1950. Edward Molyneux was an Irishman of Huguenot ancestry. He never exaggerated, always maintained sight of the elegant heights to which couture could soar. He was the designer to whom a fashionable woman would turn in the 20’s and 30’s when she wanted to be absolutely “right” and not predictable. He mixed with the aristocracy as well as café society of between-the-wars Paris and gained insight into the needs of women in that era of change and freedom. He had the surest of hands, dressed Gertude Lawrence for the stage and Princess Marina of Greece for her wedding to the Duke of Kent. Molyneux was born in London in 1891 and his first ambition was to be a painter. His sketch for an evening dress won a contest sponsored by Lucile (Lady Duff Gordon) who hired him but this was interrupted by the war when he was wounded and lost an eye. In 1918 he opened his salon in Paris and from the beginning, his style was extreme simplicity and perfect taste. Success came quickly and he moved into a larger maison and opened several branches. In addition to couture, he designed furs, lingerie, hats and perfume notably his “Numero Cinq”. He dressed the most elegant women right up to the outbreak of World War II and escaped from Paris to London in 1940. Molyneux was known for conservative clothes but never staid or matronly. His typical customer was tall, thin and intelligent, with long slim legs and usually in the late twenties or thirties. His streamlined backless white satin evening dress with silver-fox furs thrown over the shoulder, became the symbol of 30’s elegance. He was best known for his wonderful handling of navy blue and black, whether an easy plated skirt-suit or a slip-like evening dress. In The 30’s the pure Molyneux look fully emerged. His soft velvet evening coats fell to the floor in a single unbroken line, his dresses with matching three-quarter length coats had a graceful fluidity. By the end of the 30’s he experimented with a newly narrowed waist, one that later Dior called the “New Look”. In the 30’s Irish designer John Cavanagh worked under Molyneux in Paris, and gained valuable experience which stood him in good stead when he later opened his own house. After the war, Molyneux returned to Paris but it was not the same, his health particularly his eyesight, began to fail, so in 1950 he closed his Paris and London establishments and retired to Jamaica. In 1965, when the designer came out retirement, Time magazine described him as “the Parisian equivalent of Manhattan’s Mainbocher, a classicist devoted to the soft look and tailored line.” He traveled widely and resumed his painting and in 1965 collaborated with his nephew with a ready-to-wear operation called “Studio Molyneux” He died in 1974 at the age of 83. He will be remembered for his streamlined 30’s designs, clothing from a decade he helped to shape. Molyneux married, in 1923, as her first husband, (Jessie) Muriel Dunsmuir (1890-1951), one of the eight daughters of the Hon. James Dunsmuir, Premier of British Columbia. They divorced in 1924. Molyneux served as an infantry captain with the British army during World War II, during which time he lost an eye in battle. Captain Edward Molyneux embodied the style he created in the 1920s and 1930s—an idle, slim (“never too rich or too thin”), elegant style on the verge of dissipation, at the edge of the outrageous, and always refined.
Molyneux’s ineffable decorum had come as a privilege of his own style liberation from Lucile, Lady Duff Gordon. Lucile’s trademark was her rich proliferation of fine details and adornment. One would not characterize Lucile as florid, but one would certainly characterize Molyneux as chaste. His military self-presentation and English background did, however, make him seem even more Spartan in the world of French couture. Molyneux banned all superfluous decoration in an early and intuited version of modernist international style akin to the architecture of the period. He was a “modern’ in his adoration of line, avoidance of excessive decoration, as well as in his engaging manner; he was undeniably modern in his love of luxurious materials and his embrace of modern circumstances, including the automobile.
While his work was most often in black, navy blue, beige, and grey, he had the sophistication as an art collector to collect late Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings, shown in 1952 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., sold to Ailsa Mellon Bruce, and later bequeathed to the National Gallery. Unfortunately, in early 2000s the origin of many of Molyneux’s paintings came into question, after it became known that his principal dealer had collaborated with the Nazis. While it was not discovered how much if any of the collection had been stolen, Molyneux was not named as a knowing member of any scheme.
Molyneux loved bourgeois scenes of beauty, but he also created motoring outfits and easy-to-wear slip-like evening dresses for the leisure class of his time and superbly cut evening pajamas that could have costumed any Noel Coward comedy. Molyneux would be a designer successful at designing for and determining the lifestyle of his own social class, participant-observer in what Pierre Balmain called Molyneux’s international set. His curious Franco-English snobbism belonged to a time and place; his two post-World War II business enterprises were of limited success, so fully was he the product and model of a world already forgotten.
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