By Frida Loyola, Monday, March 21, 2022
Like something out of an Audrey Hepburn movie. (Stephen Miller 2003).
A type written letter with her hand written signature, sent by Despina Messinesi (1911-2003) to Thomas Drew at the Galleries at FIT on March 23, 1975, is preserved in The Museum of FIT. The letter informed the Galleries about the original whereabouts of the ensembles she had just donated. These ensembles included a New Look 1951 dress by Christian Dior and a 1955 Jean Dessès chiffon.
From a 2003 obituary and other documents preserved, we learn that she was born as Despina Plakias to Greek immigrants from Ioannina in a suburb of Boston in 1911. She lost her father at the age of 11.
An early photograph shows the 18 year old Despina dressed up as Monsieur Beaucaire for a theater play at Abbot University. Based on a 1900 novel, the play was popularized in a silent movie with Rudolph Valentino in 1924. The Andover Townsman from June 7, 1929 described Despina’s performance as “outstanding in an excellent cast. With charm of voice, expression and manner, her Beaucaire dominated every situation with a simple, easy grace.”
In the same summer of 1929, Despina traveled to Greece, visiting her grandmother. Here she met her future husband, the wealthy Greek shipping magnate Miltiades Messinesi, and got married. According to a news feature submitted by her brother John Plakias to the New York Times in 1931 she began living in Athens in Greece around the same time. During these years, she continued to travel and worked as a reporter on fashion in Paris.
As Artemis Leontis has shown in her recent brilliant biography of Eva Palmer Sikelianos (1874-1952), the 1930s brought a new wave of interest in Greek fashion to New York City. Americans were excited about Greek fashion. The Metropolitan Museum of Art featured an exhibition on Palmer Sikelianos’ ancient Greek inspired fashion in the summer of 1937, and two years later the Greek government lent several masterpieces of original ancient Greek sculptures to the World’s Fair in Queens in New York City.
During these years, Despina Messinesi traveled back and forth between Athens, London, Paris and New York. She moved back more permanently to New York in 1941, and began to work for Vogue shortly thereafter. A funny story relates to her first day at work and was described by the biographer of her obituary as follows:
Hired at $25 a week, she actually took off her first day of work in order to run a publicity stunt for Greek war relief, leading a herd of flower-bedecked donkeys through New York’s streets and to the Ritz. Coming into the Vogue offices the next morning, she was surprised to find that everyone seemed to know her already. Then she learned why: A half-page photo of her hugging a donkey had appeared in that morning’s paper.
I was able to identify and read most of her Vogue articles and collected information on the dresses she donated to the FIT Galleries. In her own voice she introduces herself as a “little shop-hound, size 10,” to the Vogue readers in April 1944. For the next decades, she became Vogue‘s main fashion editor, traveling places far and wide. During these decades, she became known for her sense of elegance, and ensembles owned by The Museum at FIT today including the black dress 77.17.3, possibly by fellow Greek diaspora designer Jean Dessès, a silk satin with polychrome ribbon, silk floss embroidery, and rhinestones by Christian Dior 1951 (75.86.5), or dress 81.232.1 by Christian Dior New York 1954 were part of her fashionable wardrobe, and made her indeed appear like out of an Audrey Hepburn movie.
Vogue included a feature of her photographing the royal Greek family, and several travel stories, sometimes from Greece, are part of her oeuvre. Today, The Museum at FIT and The Metropolitan Museum of Art share house Messinesi’s donations. They are as diverse as fascinating and include a pair of American underwear pants from 1916, a fine woolen dress by Emanuel Ungaro from the late 1960s and others. The voice of her writings for Vogue remains in FIT’s Library periodical collections. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Leontis, Artemis. Eva Palmer Sikelianos: A Life in Ruins (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019).
Miller, Stephen. Despina Messinesi, Long Time Editor at Vogue, 92. Obituary, July 2003 (accessible here).
Vogeikoff-Brogan, Natalia. “The Transatlantic Voyage of a Greek Maiden,” From the Archivist’s Notebook Blog, April 17, 2021.
About the Author:
Frida enrolled in the AHMP program after attending the Pink symposium in 2018 at the Museum at FIT. She plans to blend her design experience with Museum Studies and work as a Fashion Historian.
Current Favorite Reading or Art Exhibition:
One of my favorite, and recent, exhibitions was The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming at the Peabody Essex Museum. The trials serve as an example of injustice and intolerance in our country’s history and remind us that history can indeed repeat itself.