Dr. Monica McMurry: Putting Columbia On The World's Fashion Map

Monica McMurry is a fashionista! But not like the airbrushed divas you see preening on the red carpet on Oscar night. Not the ones who boast that they’re wearing Dior and Harry Winston. She’s more akin to those defined by Merriam-Webster: “A person who designs, sells, or is highly interested in fashion.”

Dr. Monica McMurry, Dean of the School of Design at Stephens College and curator of the school’s fashion museum and research library, is indeed highly interested in fashion. She’s spent decades studying fashion trends, teaching design students and creating runway-worthy clothing.

Her personal style is “edgy” and tailored, with a little bit of whimsy – like her navy blue shift dress with tuxedo stripes running down the sides. She’d much rather spend hours tailoring fine wool menswear than cruising the mall looking for cookie-cutter outfits, the typical offerings of most big city malls. You’ll rarely see her wearing high heels, and she’s definitely not a fan of the selfies she sees online featuring the bottom half of a woman… from behind!

Her PhD dissertation focused on First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, detailing how the First Lady used fashion to communicate the changing role of women in American society. She is an expert on that iconic pink bouclé suit the First Lady was wearing on that unforgettable day that her husband was assassinated as the two of them sat on the backseat of a convertible on a sunny day in a Dallas motorcade. She has even had two sit-down interviews with Oleg Cassini, legendary designer for countless Hollywood stars. She is the curator of the Stephens College Costume Museum and Research Library, a priceless collection of more than 13,000 pieces of clothing and accessories. Her work with the fashion museum has afforded Dr. McMurry opportunities to lecture on the intersection of history, fashion and culture. Her work has given Columbia and Stephens College a prominent place on the world fashion map.

It’s been said that the average woman’s mind is like a computer with all the apps open at the same time. That could easily be said of Dr. McMurry: lecturer, mentor, designer, dean, grandmother, curator, wife, world traveler and mother of six adult children. During the 16 years she spent working on her master’s and PhD degrees, she had to rely on the help of friends, neighbors and family members for childcare. She admits that that’s when she learned to do things “as efficiently as possible,” typically with all kinds of other things going on all around her. As her children grew up, she remembers “the older kids took care of the younger ones for three or four hours at a time.”

On Her Academic Studies

“To finish up my master’s, I had a neighbor who took the two oldest kids in the mornings, and I worked,” she recalls. “I did my rewrites with Anna on my lap nursing, most of the time with pillows layered across my lap.” That “baby” is now a college graduate with degrees in Creative Writing and German. “I think she absorbed more than milk when I wrote,” she jokes. Her youngest sister, Desiree McMurry, who is married to Dr. McMurry’s brother-in-law, believes that her sister’s tenacity and drive is typical of first-born children. “Part of being the oldest is that they tend to be over-achievers, stubborn, keep their nose to the grindstone, and just keep on going,” she explains. “She worked on her doctorate [at the University of Missouri] for years and it took a very long time… She wouldn’t let anything stop her, but she did get it done.”

On Her Family

Dr. McMurry has been married to Patrick McMurry, a commercial interior finish contractor, for 33 years. While in study hall at Hickman High School, she took notice of the student across the room who was complaining about just having wrecked his Saab. That’s when Patrick McMurry caught her eye! Though she was only a junior at the time, he thought she was a 25-year-old student teacher from Stephens College – not a seventeen-year-old! “She was sophisticated, put together and above the games of high school,” he recalls.

Dr. McMurry grew up in Los Angeles and was fascinated by neighborhood hippies’ brightly colored, often eccentric-looking clothing. She began making clothes while still in elementary school and when her family moved to Indiana, she was introduced to 4-H and started entering their “Make it Yourself With Wool” contests, and once won the contest. After Patrick McMurry learned of her many sewing accomplishments, he thought, “Wow! There’s more here than I thought. She told me ‘There’s more to life than running off to New York and being a fashion designer.’” He was impressed that she could be “so accomplished and realize that’s not the end of life.”

“He didn’t want to move to New York, and I didn’t want to leave him,” she admits. So they got married with Patrick wearing a one-of-a-kind custom tuxedo that she designed and constructed for their big day.

During her decades-long academic and professional journey, it became obvious to Patrick that his wife’s career was demanding more and more time away from their six children. “I realized something had to change because she was not able to provide the attention at home that was needed. So I planned for several days how I would sit down with her and explain that she needed to cut back on her involvement at Stephens because it was hurting our family,” he laments. He practiced the scenario over and over again, making sure he chose just the right words before sitting her down to share his concerns.

When their big talk finally happened, however, he was shocked by the words that came tumbling out of his mouth – words that were totally out of synch with the speech he had so carefully practiced.  He exhorted, “Monica, we need to do whatever it takes for you to reach the pinnacle of your career at Stephens.” His goal was to make sure his wife “could be everything she could be in the marketplace…I did not want her to miss out on what she was called to be.”

On Her Career

And much of what she is called to be revolves around Stephens College. He figures it took him about two years to adjust his schedule to live up to the words he had spoken that night because he was still consumed with running his business and “not being domesticated.”

“Men’s roles have been changing over the years, and there’s been a cultural shift,” he explains. “I slowly started trying to embrace my emerging role.” A role that included doing laundry once a week and spending more time at home with the children instead of spending every spare moment building his business.

Patrick McMurry admits that his wife’s career defies the belief that a woman’s traditional role as homemaker and mother are at odds with being a professional woman. “Her work at Stephens has been in defiance of the notion that you have to forsake your traditional role to succeed in the marketplace… she has not embraced strong feminist ideology, and is not willing to forsake traditional women’s roles in order to embrace a successful business leader’s role,” he adds. “That’s a significant role to a lot of her students.” And faculty members in her department benefit from being led by a strong woman who knows how to successfully navigates both roles.

“Monica cares for her department only slightly less than she cares for her children,” her husband explains. “Particularly her faculty. She protects them like a mother hen and they know they are loved and cared for.”

Lisa Lenoir, assistant professor of Fashion Communication at Stephens is one of those faculty members whom Dr. McMurry has cared for. Two years ago, Lenoir left her job as fashion writer and editor at the Chicago Sun Times to teach at Stephens and says it was Dr. McMurry who helped make the transition from the newsroom to academia a smooth one. “She wants us to have opportunities and it’s a blessing to have such a great supervisor,” she boasts. Lenoir describes Dr. McMurry as an “artsy intellectual” and is fascinated by McMurry’s keen intellect and the way she seems to effortlessly navigate so many different roles. “But she is not one for all the pomp and circumstance because she’s too busy down in the trenches working,” Lenoir adds.

Monica McMurry once found herself in those “trenches” with her own daughter, Caitlyn Williams, a 30-year-old mother of five. When Williams was a design student at Stephens, she remembers being overwhelmed by an unfinished project for one of her classes. “I was kind of breaking down and looking at everything I had to get done and knew I didn’t have time to finish,” Williams confesses. “Not getting it done meant getting a zero in the class.” When her mom showed up in the workroom that day where she was sitting on the floor with the pieces of her project strewn about her like an unfinished jigsaw puzzle, she spewed out her anguish, lamenting, “I don’t know what to do!” Williams had competed in 4-H sewing competitions for years and was always the perfectionist, “getting everything exactly right,” she says. But that day, her mother encouraged her that it was alright to be a perfectionist, but that she didn’t have to be obsessed with every little detail. She reminded her daughter that she’s human and that she didn’t always have to finish first. She said, “You just have to finish!” With Dr. McMurry’s support, Williams finished her project on time and earned a B+ instead of the “zero” she’d feared.

On Her Collaboration

Years later, the mother-daughter design team collaborated on a haute couture dress that Williams was commissioned to make for a friend’s wedding reception. Williams designed and made the pattern for the Grace Kelly-inspired dress that was covered with endless rows of bias-cut ruffles. Dr. McMurry helped her adjust the pattern pieces to ensure a perfect fit for the bride. At the time, Williams was teaching a design class at Collins College in Phoenix, Ariz. “The project grew and grew,” Williams recalls. She remembers the day she asked her mom to help her and says she felt like the school kid who coerced her mom into helping with a science project. The two found themselves shuttling the dress back and forth between Phoenix and Columbia for weeks on end, with lots of phone calls sprinkled in so they could trouble-shoot intricate design elements because they wanted to present the perfect dress to the bride.

Without Dr. McMurry’s help, Williams explains, “It still would have been a very pretty dress… that fit someone else!” McMurry named the dress “Organza Happiness” and, in 2012, presented it at the Beijing Institute of Fashion and Technology’s (BIFT) annual meeting in Beijing, China, where educators display original designs along with scholarly work. McMurry presented another original design, “Helter Skelter,” an orange wool coat embellished with hand-stitched red swirls. She used the project to teach her students tailoring techniques.

If you browse through a list of the world’s fashion capitals, you’ll find places like Paris, New York, Tokyo and Milan. But Columbia, Missouri? According to Business of Fashion, a well-respected online media outlet for the fashion industry, Stephens College is the 13th Best Fashion School in the world, is ranked fifth in “Best Learning Experience,” and first in “Long-term Value.” Regardless of which degree a student pursues – Fashion Communication, Design, or Fashion Marketing – a diploma from Stephens College has become a sort of gold standard among fashion educators worldwide, and Dr. McMurry has played a key role in the school’s lofty ascent in the fashion world.

Miuccia Prada said, “Fashion is instant language” and Dr. McMurry speaks it well. She’s also well-versed in the language of kindness. She’s been known to bake a cake and bring it to class when students have endured an especially difficult semester. She once made a little grownup-looking grey wool coat, spending too-many-hours-to count on its tailoring, and gave it away to a little girl in public housing. “Some of my college friends had huge life-moments when they were able to cry on her shoulder,” her daughter recounts. “She can be a mother and great mentor. I am happy to share my mom with so many people.” And, all of Columbia is happy to share Dr. Monica McMurry with the whole world of fashion!