Born: Hampstead, London, 5 September 1891. Military Service: Served as captain in the British Army, World War I. Career: Worked for couturier Lucile in London and the U.S., 1911-14; opened own house, Paris, 1919; added branches in Monte Carlo, 1925, Cannes, 1927, and London, 1932; moved business to London, 1939-46; returned to Paris, added furs, perfume, lingerie, and millinery, 1946-49; turned business over to Jacques Griffe and retired, 1950; reopened as Studio Molyneux, Paris, 1965; retired permanently soon thereafter. Fragrances included Numéro Cinq, 1926, Vivre, 1930, and Rue Royale, 1943. Died: 23 March 1974, in Monte Carlo.
Balmain, Pierre, My Years and Seasons, London, 1964.
Carter, Ernestine, Magic Names of Fashion, New York, 1980.
Milbank, Caroline Rennolds, Couture: The Great Designers, NewYork, 1985.
de Marly, Diana, The History of Haute Couture, London, 1988.
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"Captain Edward Molyneux," [obituary] in the Times (London), 25March 1974.
Dobbs, Michael, "National Gallery Vulnerable to Provenance Questions," in the Washington Post, 20 May 2000.
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. His friendship with Noel Coward was kismet, two personifications of the sophisticated style that made both drawing-room comedy and its grace. Caroline Milbank, writing in Couture: The Great Designers (1985), described Molyneux "as the designer to whom a fashionable woman would turn if she wanted to be absolutely 'right' without being utterly predictable in the 1920s and 1930s."
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.
The modern charm of Molyneux's creation was appreciated by Balmain who apprenticed with Molyneux in Paris. Balmain wrote in My Years and Seasons (London, 1964) of his regret on departing his first fashion job in the late 1930s, at Molyneux's, what he described as a "temple of subdued elegance… [where] the world's well-dressed women wore the inimitable two-pieces and tailored suits with pleated skirts, bearing the label of Molyneux." Balmain further praised Molyneux's consistent, reserved, understated couture, one often barely noticed by the fashion press, yet which was the manifestation of a conservative, continuous style.
Molyneux also designed for the theater and was a friend of Gertrude Lawrence who wore his clothing with a West End and Broadway panache, but the costumes never subsumed the actress. Molyneux's international set wore his tailored suits by day, but also could be seen at night in one or both nightclubs owned by Molyneux in partnership with hostess Elsa Maxwell wearing furs, long gowns, beaded chemises, and other elegant outfits by the designer.
Today designers who mingle with their clients are often criticized for social climbing. There is no evidence that such charges were placed against Molyneux as he moved so effortlessly and with soigné flair among the ladies he dressed. Ernestine Carter, writing in Magic Names of Fashion, called Molyneux "dashing and debonair," comparing him to Fred Astaire. That he dressed women of the greatest propriety and restraint made it clear that, in dwelling among them, he was of like sensibility and shared spirit. It was Molyneux's place in international café-society that allowed him to cavort with Noel Coward and gave the sobriety of his design its sense of belonging. Given that fashion went through so many changes and excesses in the 1920s and 1930s, Molyneux was a constant model of cool elegance.