Betty Kirke: Fashion Olympian

Greek vase depicting a priestess making an offering

Greek vase depicting an elaborately-dressed priestess

Betty Kirke was a moving force in the New York world of fashion history.  To say she was an Olympian would be more accurate.  This is because Betty Kirke, at middle age (and after retiring twice), became an Olympian.  She took part in the “Cultural Olympiad” in Greece in 2004.   In Athens, Betty  gave a presentation on Madeleine Vionnet, the fashion designer of 1930s Paris famous for designs featuring the bias cut.  Vionnet, Betty discovered, had carefully studied the Greek vases at the Louvre, incorporating the twists, folds and ties of ancient Greek costumes into her designs.


A Vionnet gown inspired by Greek vases

Like Vionnet herself, Betty was born into modest circumstances.  They both rose to the pinnacle of the fashion world, seemingly hand-in-hand, though separated by distance and time.  Vionnet began her career as an apprentice to a seamstress in a Paris suburb.  She rose to became the most celebrated designer of Paris, where the House of Vionnet on the Avenue Montaigne dressed international high society.

Betty began her career working at Ford Motor Company during World War II.   She installed carburetors on the assembly line and used the money to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  She later owned her own design firm, retired, and went to work at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  She retired again and then became senior conservator of the costume and textile collection at The Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology.

In between retiring twice and working on costume exhibitions and conservation, Betty researched the life and work of Madeleine Vionnet.  Betty had become enchanted with the work of Vionnet while working at the Met Costume Institute exhibition 10s, 20s and 30s Inventive Clothing curated by Diana Vreeland.

In Paris, Vionnet invited Betty to her townhouse, where she received her wearing her Balenciaga dressing gown. The 98-years-old Vionnet, insisted that Betty try on her personal collection of dresses so she could understand how

Madeleine Vionnet draping a muslin pattern

Madeleine Vionnet draping a pattern for one of her bia cut designs

the bias cut performed when worn.  She urged Betty to continue her research.  She did so, recreating Vionnet’s method of draping her patterns on a small mannequin that rotated on a piano stool.  Betty used muslin that she marked on the woof and weft so that the bias drape could be more easily understood.


I met Betty in Paris, where she had come to research her book on Madeleine Vionnet at the Costume Museum.  I was an intern at the museum at the time. Betty and I became fast friends.  I carried out research for her in Paris, interviewing the sales ladies, seamstresses, fellow designers, manufacturers of textiles and soutache as well as business associates that had made the House of Vionnet a success.


Madeleine Vionnet by Betty Kirke.

Upon my return to New York, Betty and I worked long hours on the text of the book, Madeleine Vionnet, published by Chronicle Publishing.  Madeleine Vionnet became an international sensation.  The book contained text, photos, sketches and patterns.  In Japan, its publication was sponsored by the fashion designer Issey Miyake.  Betty’s NYC apartment in Inwood was constantly full of researchers and admirers from around the globe.  Her door was always open.

Betty’s third retirement was her last one.  She moved to California to be with her family.  Her final years were spent organizing her personal collections and archives so that others could continue the work she had begun.  She knew that Vionnet’s bias cut was sure to be welcome by each succeeding generation of designers and especially by women.  Betty was still looking forward to the changes that technology would bring to the fashion industry and the bias cut when she passed away earlier this year.

Betty Kirke, fashion designer, costume historian, textile conservator

Betty Kirke, fashion designer, costume historian, costume and textile conservator




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