Obituary: Jean Muir
Tuesday 30 May 1995
The axiom of her craft was common sense, which she raised to the pitch of genius. Her clothes were effortless, comfortable and, once donned, easily forgotten by the wearer - never the beholder. Many women working in the public eye - Lady Antonia Fraser, Patricia Hodge, Carmen Callil, Beatrix Miller - wore her simple, thoughtful clothes. They were rinsed of seasonal gimmicks and spurious feminine details and did not require a model's body to look good.
The archetypal Muir dress, recognised the world over, was tailored rather than draped in navy or black rayon crepe. Top-stitched seams sufficed as decoration, though in a regrettable nod to the gaudy Eighties she did take to scattering the bodices of her dresses with glittery sequins.
Miss Muir - never Jean, for like Madame Gres she was rather particular about formality - was of puritan Scottish stock. After being educated at a rather proper girls' school in Bedford she began her career in a solicitor's office. Moving to Liberty, she started off in the stockroom, briefly sold lingerie and then began sketching and selling made-to-measure clothes. After a spell at Jacqmar, in 1956 she joined Jaeger, where she specialised in knitwear design.
Throughout the late Fifties she regularly attended the haute couture collections in Paris, during its heyday. The perfectionism of Balenciaga and Dior was not lost on the canny and observant young Scot. She was a purist and one of the first to apply couture standards of conception and perfection to ready-to-wear. This was a particularly bold decision for in the Sixties, when she launched her own label, shoddy novelty was preferred to impeccably crafted understatement.
In 1962 Muir started her own label, "Jane & Jane", which was eventually sold to Courtaulds. Four years later she launched her eponymous label with the help of her husband Harry Leuckert, a retired actor.
She always regarded herself as a dressmaker, never a "fashion designer", and as a craftsman and certainly not an artist. She was far too rigorous with herself, as well as her staff, to tolerate such indulgence. It was not for nothing that the press liked to dub her the Miss Jean Brodie of design, for her work was the "creme de la creme" of British dressmaking.
Muir designed for a woman of mature outlook - be she 25 or 65 - and a modern, restrained elegance. She never cast her as a doll, sex kitten, earth mother, dressing-up queen or kept woman; such stereotypic fantasies were dreamt up by other designers and she would not subscribe to that demeaning ploy.
Despite the fickleness of high fashion she remained consistent; creating, season in and season out, an evolving series of sober clothes. With only rare exceptions she ignored the industry's pressure to take up the latest fad and, in doing so, negate last year's work. Her resolve and sense of purpose served her loyal band of customers well.
Muir was also a sensualist. The physical sense of dress was just as important to her as the visual impact. Her clothes were allied to the body and its movements, not alien to it. To her the definition of a modern woman was "someone who is loose-limbed, broad-minded and not afraid of her body" and so her craft depended on a thorough study of anatomy and body movement. Approaching the female form with the same strict exactitude as Leonardo da Vinci did his anatomical drawings, she studied woman in motion and covered her in fabrics that enhanced the grace and allure of that movement. It was not surprising that one of Muir's great loves was the ballet, for which she designed costumes.
Pockets were placed, for example, at hip level, encouraging the wearer to hold her shoulders back and adopt a confident air. Bust darts were eliminated as she considered them both anatomically irrelevant (she preferred to mould the torso) and just plain ugly. She prescribed a limited and integrated wardrobe so that her clothes would not distract the wearer.
Another strength was her fastidiousness about colour. There are certain shades that one readily associates with her: more navy blues than there are names to describe, a flat metallic Prussian blue, the deep blue-red of a plum tomato, a sad saffron, a zinging Matisse orange, the silvery purple of heather and an intense pine green. These colours were hard won, for she worked in close contact with mills and dyers, sending samples back and forth until the exact tone was achieved.
Miss Muir was a rigorous self-disciplinarian. Visiting her flat behind the Royal Albert Hall would bring out the twitchy anarchist in me. This all-white, squeaky-clean temple seemed the acme of genteel refinement. Imagine, white walls, white floors, white upholstery, white furniture - surely snow-blindness would strike as one sat in this antiseptic abode. House rules laid down that shoes were left at the door and replaced by slippers. Subversive thoughts would edge into the mind while one was slip-sliding around this contamination-free zone: how one would love to graffiti the pristine walls with obscenities like "Psychedelic!" or "Sweet Disorder!", and munch chocolates on that white sofa, or take up finger-painting in that virginal dining-room - anything to disturb this cleanliness and propriety. But etiquette informed all behaviour in front of Miss Muir and so one just sat, ankles and hands neatly crossed, behaving oneself.
Jean Muir was strange to behold. Her mannerisms suggested a highly strung woman who would crumble at the slightest pressure. She was bird-boned, barely five foot high and always dressed in deep navy. Over the decades her look was immutable: a navy dress or separates, lace-up shoes with a sensible heel, taupe foundation and that Biba-style, plum- socketed eye make-up and damson lips that were all the rage circa 1972. She favoured a Louise Brooks bob, just covering the ears and parted quite emphatically to one side. Most memorable of all was that interrogatory squeak that punctuated all communication and which one subconsciously mimicked, so that a conversation began to sound like a strange mating call exchanged between two reluctant hamsters.
Aside from her work with students, Muir earnestly defended the crafts in Britain. She was of great service to both industry and education. As a member of the B/Tec Board of Design, she influenced the future of design through the educational system and she used this role to urge the importance of craft rather than art. In many things she shared Ruskin's views on the importance of craft for she was appalled that in the machine age our society accorded little respect to those who worked with their hands.
For this reason she refused to use the word fashion as a noun. "Fashion! I hate the word," she would declare. "I hate the over-importance attached to it. I am a dressmaker. It is better used as a verb, not a noun: to fashion, to make, to craft, the art of making, which implies craft and skill."
Jean Muir was an original, writes Sir Roy Strong. She seemed to spring from nowhere, a pert, small, schoolgirlish figure with immaculate straight hair framing a face which was never devoid of expression. When her passions rose high her features could assume a striking resemblance to Munch's The Scream. And her passions were strong, for quality, finish, training, discipline, cleanliness, order, all ingredients she expressed in her own art, that of clothes, but ones that she regarded as fundamental to any professional career.
For her the role of creative designer and efficient businesswoman ran in tandem. She was fervently patriotic, dedicated to furthering the cause of British design, furious at Government, the art colleges, the fashion industry or anything or anybody who was seen to be responsible for any form of lapse or slip downwards in standards. Terrier-like, she would nibble and nag at everything and everybody in support of the causes he championed.
As a trustee of the Victoria and Albert Museum she would turn up at six in the morning to find out just how the floors were or were not cleaned. The quality of design and practicality of the cups and saucers in the new restaurant were just as important to her as the latest high-art acquisition. As Master of the Faculty of the Royal Designers for Industry she used all the strings which that office brought her to lobby for raising the level of training in design and craftsmanship upon which Britain's industrial prosperity would depend.
At any event she was an unmistakable figure, her own clothes suiting her supremely. Once I told her that only she could turn up for the Queen's Birthday Party at the British Embassy in Paris looking like a Neapolitan widow. Like Elizabeth Arden, Jean was always "Miss" Muir, but to those privileged to know her as a friend she was a carefree loving person, blessed by a perfect marriage to Harry Leuckert. She was a vociferous reader, an avid theatre-goer and gallery visitor. She adored jazz as much as she did champagne. Her pronouncements were magisterial; her enthusiasm was boundless. She treasured her privacy, denying the camera's intrusive eye into her Northumbrian home, where if the arrival of meals could be erratic abundance and hilarity never was. Here she indulged to the full her selective eye for modern British craft pieces along with sculptures by Elisabeth Frink and paintings by Bridget Riley, both of whom wore her clothes superbly well.
Indeed, that touches her achievement, a look for the professional woman of the kind who was rising to the top from the mid-1960s onwards. Her vision depended on drape, cut and craftsmanship. She showed little interest in pattern or decoration, nor was she a great colourist. When I once asked Beatrix Miller, the former editor of Vogue, where Jean should be placed in the pantheon of couturiers, it was as the English Vionnet.
Not even her closest friends knew that she had cancer. Jean Muir was a tough and resilient Scot; the bravery that represents epitomises the courage of a woman who was never anything other than definite.
Jean Elizabeth Muir, dressmaker: born London 17 July 1928; Designer-Director and Co-Owner, Jean Muir Ltd 1967-95; RDI 1972; FRSA 1973; CBE 1984; married 1955 Harry Leuckert; died London 28 May 1995.
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