Kay Thompson : A Pioneer in Pants

Publicity material, 1951

Publicity material by Lynton Richards Kistler , 1951

Unless you love the Eloise books or frequently watch the 1957 film Funny Face you might not know the name Kay Thompson (1909-1998).  She was a well known entertainer from the thirties on, with a long list of achievements: singer, night club performer, vocal coach, song writer, music arranger, dancer, choreographer, actress, and author.  In the fashion world, she gained brief fame as the choreographer for the Americans in the famous fashion show in Versailles in 1973 that pitted New World designers against their established French counterparts.

But here’s an accomplishment that surprised me: Thompson was a vocal advocate for women in pants. An entire chapter of a recent biography by Sam Irvin, Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise (2010) is devoted to her trial blazing fashion choices. Already in the 1930s, she appeared in publicist materials for her vocal group wearing pants. When she established her career in nightclubs in the 1940s, pants were her most frequent outfit, a far cry from the slinky dresses worn by other chanteuse.  Her favorite style stopped well above the ankle, a cut that came to be called Capri pants. Thompson claimed to have thought them up herself before they became well known in the fashion world.

New York Times, 1952

Los Angeles Times, Oct. 17, 1952

In the early 1950s, Thompson even launched her own line of pants, produced by a subsidiary of Evan Picone and sold exclusively at Saks Fifth Avenue.  Above is the only ad I found for them—looking longer and looser than the ones Thompson herself favored.  “Something magic in the cutting keeps them smooth as skin whether you sit, stand or do set-ups,” the ad copy reads.

Still from Funny Face, 1957

Still from Funny Face, 1957

According to Irwin, the pants that Audrey Hepburn wore in Funny Face were from Thompson’s line.  And Thompson, playing a high class fashion editor, wore her own pants in the film as well.

Hilary Knight's 1996 portrait of Kay Thompson for Vanity Fair.

Hilary Knight’s 1996 portrait of Kay Thompson for Vanity Fair

When Hillary Knight, the illustrator of the Eloise books, paid homage to Kay Thompson in 1996, just before her death, it’s hardly surprising that he drew her in pants.

This entry was posted in 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1990 and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Kay Thompson : A Pioneer in Pants

  1. Carol in Denver says:

    We who sew are still looking for that “something magic in the cutting” pants pattern.

  2. Funny Face remains a long-time favorite of mine! I really enjoy Kay Thompson in it.

  3. Lizzie says:

    It would be interesting to know if the Kay Thompson line of pants had her name on the label.

  4. eimear says:

    love the gamine look of Audrey Hepburn in those pants..

  5. Jen O says:

    Interesting article on Thompson. I did not know that she also claimed to have designed the pants worn in Funny Face. Legend is that the skinny style fitted flat front, back zip pant made famous by Hepburn, Monroe and other’s came from Jax, a very popular boutique in Beverly Hills that was owned by Jack Hanson. Rudi Gernreich was the original designer starting in 1952 at that store, so it’s thought that Audrey was wearing Rudi’s fitted pants from Jax. There are quite a few who claim to be the first women’s slacks designer, but as early as 1947 slacks were the largest volume garment produced in California, so it was definitely a big competitive industry here with many designers at work. Nice to have Thompson’s point of view.

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