Mona Bismarck in Capri in the 1960s. | Courtesy of Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

Kentuckian Mona Bismarck was the Kim Kardashian of her day. She was a socialite, fashion icon and philanthropist and was the first American to be named “The Best Dressed Woman in the World” by a panel of couturiers that included Coco Chanel.

“Her extraordinary catlike eyes and blue-grey hair are New York phenomena,” wrote Vogue in 1936, “(and) her dressing is high art.”

Mrs. Harrison Williams, 1935. | Courtesy of Cecil Beaton Archive at Sotheby’s

Bismarck was born in Louisville in 1897 and raised in Lexington. She was married five times, most notably to Harrison Williams, one of the richest men in the country.

Some of her friends included the Duchess of Windsor, Diana Vreeland and Gore Vidal, and — get this — she had her portrait painted by Salvador Dali in 1948.

With all these achievements under her belt — or, rather Givenchy gown — it’s surprising that very few people in Kentucky know who she is. The Frazier History Museum hopes to change that with the exhibit “Magnificent Mona Bismarck,” which opens Thursday, March 15.

The exhibit will feature more than 50 of Bismarck’s ensembles that span five decades of her haute couture and will be divided into four galleries: History & Pre-War; Day Wear & Cocktail Wear; Evening Wear; and Greatest Love, which will detail her passion for gardening.

According to a news release, guests will be able to see at least three dozen Balenciaga garments and hats; Givenchy garments, including silk organza cocktail pajamas and an evening dress of butterscotch feathers and metallic embroidery; two silk blouses and a map of Capri scarf by Emilio Pucci; a black Chantilly lace Vionnet dress with trompe l’oeil bows over a pale pink lamé slip; a shocking pink wool Schiaparelli dinner jacket; a lion’s paw shell Verdura brooch; a citrine bib necklace and a “godron” cuff of gold and diamonds by Belperron; and 24 pairs of pumps by Roger Vivier.

Balenciaga, circa 1953. | Courtesy of Goldstein Museum of Design, Minnesota University

We don’t know what cocktail pajamas are, but we definitely need some.

There also will be drawings, sketches and photos of Mona and her lavish lifestyle.

The exhibit was curated by Scott Rogers, who will be on hand Thursday when the exhibit opens. That same day, at 6 p.m., Stephanie Wood, co-curator of the critically acclaimed “Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion” at the Victoria & Albert Museum, will give a public lecture on the importance of Balenciaga to fashion and with regard to Mona’s style.

Other special seminars and lectures will take place throughout the exhibit’s run, which extends through July 29. The Frazier History Museum is located at 829 W. Main St.

Here’s a look at a few more images from the “Magnificent Mona Bismarck”:

Mrs. Harrison Williams wearing Belperon jewelry, 1936_©The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby's-x650xBalenciaga, c1953 (detail)_©Goldstein Museum of Design, University of Minnesota-x650xSchiaparelli, c 1938_©Goldstein Museum of Design, University of Minnesota-x650xMona wearing Balenciaga_©The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby's-x650xMona at Hotel Lambert, Paris, 1953_©The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby's-x650x
Mrs. Harrison Williams wearing Belperon jewelry, 1936. | Courtesy of Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby's

Sara Havens is the Culture Editor at Insider Louisville. She's known around town as the Bar Belle and updates her blog ( daily. She's a former editor of LEO Weekly and has written for Playboy and The Alcohol Professor. Havens is the author of two books: "The Bar Belle" and "The Bar Belle Vol. 2."


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