More Than Chintz: The Opposing Styles of Sister Parish

It’s not unusual to see an artist dressed in a uniform. Johnny Cash became the ‘Man in Black’ because he wore the color so much, and Steve Jobs put his genius on display by forgoing 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 American interior designer Sister Parish. Sister’s work was built around a bright aesthetic, 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 she transformed her rooms, which were festooned with rich fabrics and quirky embellishments for customers with social status’ as bright as the patterns she used.

How Dorothy Became Sister

Sister was born Dorothy Kinnicutt to a wealthy American family. She earned the moniker Sister as a familial nickname, which followed her into adulthood. Her childhood occurred during the early twentieth century, which was a time where the occupation of an interior designer was not realized. Instead, it was a set of duties based on societal rules to be taken on by a wife or female relative. Sister came into her own appreciation of the craft through both genuine interest and designing her first marital home with her husband, Albert. In 1933, Sister began her interior design business in a small one-room office in Far Hills, New Jersey. The fact that she was a married woman owning a business was considered scandalous and resulted in her husband losing his inheritance.

Sister established herself as an interior designer by designing for her friends, which led to one project after another. By 1962, the business was so successful that Sister needed a partner. She found 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 by using antiques and assorted furniture that was complemented with wicker accents, graphic rugs, and handmade textiles. She also liked to include artistic details like scenic panoramas, which 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 frequently photographed during the height of her career. By analyzing her wardrobe in these photographs and comparing them with her work, a greater understanding of her own aesthetic is revealed.

Sister’s 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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