Jane Morgan’s ‘In My Style’ tells a brilliant life story in sequins

Given the rarity of living as precisely as one dresses, Hollywood star Jane Morgan’s collection of performance dresses dazzles through time.

Con Xie, Contributing Writer

From an outsider’s perspective, New York Fashion Week appears to be the heady, clout-encrusted rush of influencers filing into coveted seats, collecting brand-named goodie bags in pure video game fashion. The new innovates upon the old — remaining new, until it suddenly isn’t — and there’s a new new.

However, at the 3 West Club’s Federalist-style Pratt Lounge, “Jane Morgan: In My Style” features a collection of gowns worn by Hollywood star Jane Morgan that leads viewers through a carefully curated view of impeccably restored vintage stage fashion. The clothes and memorabilia serve as a window into Morgan’s dynamic, albeit retired, stage presence — a grand tour of Morgan’s career.

A Juilliard opera student by training, Morgan, now aged 98, rose to fame by singing daily at Parisian nightclubs, where prominent composers like Charles Trenet dedicated songs to her. She went on to open at the Ritz-Carlton in Montreal in a solo English-French bilingual act before returning to the U.S., where she had her own NBC radio show.

Inspired by Martin Scorsese’s staging of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s stage exhibit on vintage American fashion, curator and public relations coordinator Bonnie Bien arranged for a balance of glamor and accessibility on set. Stage lighting and mannequins positioned close together lent a theatrical air to the exhibit, as if they all posed for the final bows. The baby grand piano, the fireplace and the paintings hanging from wall sconces gave the collection the intimate feel of a small gallery.

Bien, Morgan’s personal assistant for four years, said that though Morgan was primarily a singer, she solidified her reputation as an American star upon the dawn of television, comparing her to Marilyn Monroe.

Following Morgan’s retirement, her dresses were packed away in her barn, until Bien paid her a visit at her home — a blueberry estate in Kennebunk, Maine, earlier this year. 

“She asked me what to do with her gowns,” Bien recalled. “I unpacked them and they smelled … it was quite something.”

Thus began a painstaking restoration process which involved spraying large amounts of vodka onto the dresses to rid them of mold, odors and pests. 

Most Hollywood stars have stylists, but “In My Style” represents how Jane Morgan styled herself, with designers coming to her for inspiration.

Upon entry, the viewer is greeted by what Bien introduces as the “iconic Jane Morgan dress” — a black mermaid number by Metropolitan Museum of Art-featured designer Kathryn Kuhn. Like many dresses in the collection, this flattering hourglass silhouette features a sweetheart neckline, a beaded bodice and rich embellishments that shine visibly from afar under the bright lights.

“Beaded was her aesthetic,” Bien said. “At that time, not a lot of performers went for beads, as they were very heavy.”

The cover of Morgan’s “In My Style” album — which shares a name with this collection — on which she is photographed wearing this signature dress, is propped next to the display while a video of her performing “Fascination” plays in the background, adding further touches of Morgan’s presence.

Throughout her career, Morgan also sang for various heads of state, including Queen Elizabeth and presidents Kennedy, H.W. Bush and Nixon. The ensemble Morgan wore to sing to President Bush at the White House — a brown shift dress with sequins stitched in the manner of snake scales — featured a feathered hem in the style of Oscar de la Renta. This dress was more geometric in aesthetic than the ones preceding it, signifying the passing of time. Photographs of Morgan with the Bush family were placed carefully on a shelf behind the dress to demonstrate their long-time friendship, as well as thank-you cards that included the signatures of Jon Bon Jovi and Chevy Chase for a function she held for the Bushes. 

The next gown — nude in color, with a demure turtleneck, that she wore to the 2009 Unicef ball to sing to her husband — continued reaching into modernism. This gown featured the same abstract bead motif in the sheer rectangular panels in its skirt as the electric blue dress she changed into for the party afterwards, creating a common thread between the two seemingly very different dresses.

The collection ends with a beaded jacket and pants outfit. While the elegant, muted colors and heavy embellishment of the jacket are no surprise, its pairing with well-structured yet plain pants appears somewhat out of place. Designed by Oleg Cassini, the creator of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ signature “Jackie look,” it remains luxurious and just as graceful as the other pieces. “I’ve retired,” it seems to say, “but I’m still me.”

To Jane Morgan, clothes were a crucial part of the experience of her performances. The collection alluded to Shakespeare in seeming to say, “So long lives this, and this give life to thee.” 

“She liked to create an intimacy with her audience,” Bien said. “She’d go up to tables and sing to them.”

The dresses gave Morgan a dazzling allure, matching her ability to captivate the public with her music. As Bien acknowledges, “this [collection] right here is her legacy.”  

Due to the difficulties of traveling in her old age, Morgan was unable to attend this particular showing. Amid the shine of sequins and passementerie, however, her powerful presence as an entertainer still shines through.

Indeed, as Coco Chanel famously said, “Fashion is ephemeral, but style is eternal.”

Contact Con Xie at [email protected]