More Than Chintz: The Opposing Styles of Sister Parish

It’s not unusual to see an artist dressed in a uniform. Repeating attire in similar silhouettes, colors, and textiles give the wearer a detached persona in relation to their appearance. Johnny Cash became the “Man in Black” because he wore the color so much, and Steve Jobs put his genius on display by foregoing conservative suits for a comfortable turtleneck and jeans combo.

This act of hiding oneself to reveal their craft is also seen in the wardrobe of Sister Parish, an American interior designer. Sister’s work was built around a bright aesthetic and her outgoing personality. But when examining her own sense of style, there are extremes. Her professional attire was consistently colored in somber hues and designed in structured silhouettes. This countered the way Sister transformed her rooms, which were festooned with rich fabrics and quirky embellishments for customers with social status’ as bright as the patterns she used.

From Mrs. Henry Parish II to Sister Parish

Sister was born as Dorothy Kinnicutt to a wealthy American family. She earned the moniker Sister as a familial nickname that followed her into adulthood. Her family’s fine living surrounded her with fine art and antiques that furnished their New York City, Paris, and Maine homes. Her childhood occurred during the early twentieth century, which was a time where the occupation of an interior designer was not realized. It was seen as a set of duties that were based on societal rules. Sister came into her own appreciation of the craft through a genuine interest and designing her first marital home with her husband Albert. In 1933, Sister began her business in a small one-room office in Far Hills, New Jersey. The fact that she was a married woman owning and working her own business was considered scandalous and resulted in her husband being disinherited by his relatives

Sister established herself through designing for her friends, which led to one project after another. By 1962, the business required a design and business partner. She was joined by a then-young interior designer named William Hadley who specialized in combining classic and contemporary styles. Together the duo designed rooms for some of the top names in American society, which included the Astors, Paleys, and even the Kennedys.

Sister is credited for creating and popularizing the American Country look, an interior design aesthetic that was described by a 1999 profile in Architectural Digest as, “…a certain kind of cozy old-money look, part opulent, part hand-me-down.” This upscale “lived-in” feel was created through antiques and assorted furniture that was complemented with wicker accents, graphic rugs, and handmade textiles. She included artistic details like scenic panoramas that elevated the rooms to suit the needs and societal lives of her clients.

Dressing as Sister Parish
There is not much text on Sister’s wardrobe, but she was well-documented during the height of her career. By analyzing her wardrobe through photographs and comparing them with her work, a greater understanding of her own aesthetic is revealed.

To be a mature woman leading a successful company from the 1950s to the 1980s was a great task, even for a wealthy White female like Sister. Her first identity in American society was of a wife, however, her passion for interior design created a new path that let her use her own name and voice. She reveled in this new identity with an outgoing personality and a matching design aesthetic. This passion did not translate into her own professional wardrobe, which was based on darkly-colored outfits with small touches of white neck collars, pussy bows, or jewelry. Constructed, conservative silhouettes channeled her aristocratic upbringing through variations of pencil skirts with jackets or knee-length dresses in crew or V-necklines. Sister’s mainstays were a blonde coif, a flash of red lipstick, and pearls in either a necklace, earring, or brooch form. This personal appearance was that of a diligent professional whose clothing choices were direct and chic, which left the interior design as the focus.

To learn more about Sister Parish, visit SisterParishDesign.com or read one of the many books about her life and work.

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