NMWA Celebrates the work of American Fashion Designer Mary McFadden in Mary McFadden: Goddesses

View of the museum from outside showing the Neoclassical building from one corner. The building is a tan-colored stone with an arched doorway, long vertical windows, and detailed molding around the roof.

WASHINGTON—For the first time in its 22 year history, National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) salutes haute couture by presenting Mary McFadden: Goddesses, an exhibition of gowns, clothing ensembles and jewelry by internationally-renowned American fashion designer Mary McFadden. On view from March 20 through August 30, 2009, the exhibition also features historic textiles and jewelry drawn from McFadden’s own collection assembled during her extensive world travels. Mary McFadden: Goddesses was organized by The Galleries at Moore College of Art & Design, Philadelphia and curated by Lorie Mertes, Rochelle F. Levy Director and Chief Curator.

“This is NMWA’s first foray into fashion and we are delighted to begin with American designer Mary McFadden, whose work has had such an intense visual dialogue with art from around the globe.  She was (and is) a world traveler, who found inspiration in the art and artifacts of Greece, Byzantium, and Renaissance Italy, as well as the cultural traditions of India, South America, and China, among others.  Bridging her own modern sensibility with these varied cultural influences, McFadden successfully built a foundation of pure, timeless silhouettes, often enriched by ornamentation and exotic detail.  Her distinctive garments and unique sensitivity to color, harmony, and proportion brought a new sense of style to American fashion from the 1970s. ‘80s, and ‘90s,”  said NMWA Director Susan Fisher Sterling.

Frequently referred to as a “design archeologist,” McFadden’s distinctive garments reflect an avid study of ancient and ethnic cultures weaving the art of ancient Near Eastern, African, Classical Greek, Javanese, Pre-Columbian, Dynastic Chinese, Japanese and Korean cultures into her fabrics. 

McFadden explained, “I have adapted symbols and religious signs from many civilizations for my decorative fabric designs. Bits of heraldry, calligraphic ornamentation, stylized leaves and clouds, mythical animals, mosaics are ever present in my textiles and embroideries.”

With an artist’s sensitivity to color, harmony, and proportion, McFadden builds from a foundation of pure, timeless silhouettes and luxurious fabrics to which she adds exotic details and decorations.  Many of her designs feature her own signature fabric, “Marii,” a pleated polyester fabric, which she created in 1975. Designed to “fall like liquid gold,” the fabrics cling to the body in animated folds while revealing the contours of the form beneath. McFadden is also known for her exquisite hand-painted quilted jackets and use of the traditional Indian Zardozi embroidery technique that was once used to embellish the attire of the Kings and the royals in India.

About the Exhibition

Gowns and Clothing Ensembles

On view in the exhibition are more than 40 major works from signature collections: works from the “Medici” collection, inspired by the Medici dynasty of fifteenth-century Florence incorporate velvet and opulent use of embroidery and hand-beading; gowns and jackets from the “Tales of Genji” collection (1988)inspired bythe eleventh-century book of the same title by Lady Shikibu Murasaki (980-1016) is one of the numerous collections McFadden created based on Asian themes. Other Asian-inspired collections on view include the “Archaic Chinese Bronze” collection, and the “Emerald Buddha” collection inspired by the soft pastel hues, especially the celadon green, characteristic of Ming Dynasty China. Also on view are: gowns from the “Cult of Osiris” (1995) combining gold-hued macramé bodices with “Marii” pleated skirts; “Collection Mongolia” (Fall 1999) is represented with a stunning hand-painted floor-length quilted wedding dress; and gowns from the Jean-Auguste-Dominique-Ingres collection incorporate elaborate designs in Zardozi gold thread embroidery on velvet accented with pearls and jewels.


For McFadden, jewelry is an integral part of the entire design of a dress, “jewelry is to beautify a woman. But it should also be an objet d’art.” She created cuffs, necklaces and earrings that were independently conceived but coordinated with the themes of her couture collections. In addition to McFadden’s original designs, a selection of more than 30 stunning examples from McFadden’s personal jewelry collection are also on view and include ancient Pre-Columbian gold and Byzantine jewelry to 16th century ceremonial pieces from India.

Textile Collection

Inspired by the simplicity of the design patterns from ancient cultures and civilizations, McFadden has an extensive collection of traditional ethnographic clothing and textiles—African robes, Japanese kimonos and Romanian folk costumes—many of which she was fond of wearing before she herself became a designer. 

In her travels to research new themes for future haute couture collections, McFadden has amassed a personal textile collection ranging from Italian ecclesiastical garments to a 16th century Korean marriage robe. Each of these items is distinguished by the simple elegance of its construction or the magnificence of its surface detail. The exhibition presents a number of works from her collection alongside her fashions to reveal McFadden’s imaginative interpretations that draw from the past to create the present.

About the Artist

An internationally-renowned textile, clothing and jewelry designer, Mary McFadden is also a designer of dramatic interior décor, a world traveler, an avid art collector, curator, textile collector, journalist, champion tennis player, successful entrepreneur and ever-curious scholar.

Born in New York in 1938, Mary McFadden spent her early formative years on her father’s cotton plantation near Memphis before she moved to Long Island, New York. She attended school in New York and Paris, and studied sociology and anthropology at Columbia University.

After working as a publicist for Christian Dior – New York, an editor for Vogue South Africa and as a columnist for the Rand Daily Mail, in Johannesburg, South Africa, she launched her first collection in New York in 1973. In 1974 she created her own signature fabric, “Marii,” pleated polyester. She won her first Coty Award in 1976 and entered the Coty Hall of Fame in 1979.

She is the recipient of numerous awards and honors including: a Lifetime Achievement Award during Fashion Week of the Americas, the Neiman Marcus Award of Excellence and the President’s Fellow Award from Rhode Island School of Design. She was also inducted into the Best-Dressed Hall of Fame and served as President of the Council of Fashion Designers of America from 1982-83. McFadden was also awarded the first Living Landmark Award by the New York Landmarks Conservancy.

McFadden’s past special projects include designing costumes for the performance of Dido and Aeneas by New York’s Opera at the Academy in 1989; stage sets and costumes for Degas Impressions performed by the Oregon Ballet Theater in 1992; and stage furniture and costumes for The World of Mysteries: The Mysteries of Eleusis,directed by Vasilios Calitsis and performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1998. From 1994 to 2002, she designed a line of accessories for the QVC.

Since closing her New York showroom in 2002, McFadden has designed costumes for films, including Zooni, the Last Chak Empress of Kashmir, directed by Indian filmmaker Muzaffar Ali and filmed in Shrinagar, Kashmir. Originally begun in 1992, the film was postponed due to political unrest in Kashmir. McFadden has also designed costumes for the forthcoming feature film, Sha Jahan, being filmed in Delhi. She travels each year to Maheshwar in central India to direct an annual festival for traditional Indian music.


The presentation of the exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts is generously supported by an anonymous donor, the Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD), and the Members of NMWA.  Additional in-kind support is provided by the Willard InterContinental.

National Museum of Women in the Arts

The National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), founded in 1981 and opened in 1987, is the only museum solely dedicated to celebrating the achievements of women in the visual, performing and literary arts. The museum’s permanent collection features 3,000 works from the 16th century to the present created by more than 800 artists; including Mary Cassatt, Frida Kahlo, Alma Thomas, Lee Krasner, Louise Bourgeois, Chakaia Booker along with special collections of 18th-century silver tableware and botanical prints. NMWA is located at 1250 New York Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C., in a landmark building near the White House. It is open Monday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. and Sunday, noon–5 p.m.  For information, call 202-783-5000 or visit the museum’s Web site at www.nmwa.org.