STL Fashion Archives: St. Louisan Kay Thompson "Wears Prada"

By Rikki Byrd
In Style

Before Miranda Priestly gave us a glimpse into the perils and strife of being a magazine editor in “The Devil Wears Prada,” there was Kay Thompson, who played editor of Quality Magazine in the popular 1957 film “Funny Face.” Although the film is praised wholly because of Audrey Hepburn, Thompson won much acclaim for the film, which arguably reflected her dynamic career in fashion, entertainment and publishing.

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Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. “Kay Thompson.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed February 23, 2016.

Kay Thompson was born Catherine Louise Fink in St. Louis in 1909. She attended Soldan High School—while performing as a soloist with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra—and Washington University. With a talent for performing coupled with a personality that was widely discussed from family and friends to The New York Times, Thompson—as Robin Givhan writes in her book Battle of Versailles—wanted to leave St. Louis as fast she could to begin her career in entertainment.

Kay Thompson in "Funny Face," photo courtesy of Kay Thompson archive.

Kay Thompson in “Funny Face,” photo courtesy of Kay Thompson archive.

After dropping out of Washington University, she moved to Hollywood and would spend the rest of her life being a “skeleton key to midcentury Hollywood and Broadway.”

In her lifetime, she wrote shows for MGM and published the popular children’s books starring Eloise. In addition, she befriended Judy Garland (and planned her funeral) and became Liza Minelli’s godmother. In 1973, famed designer Halston hired Thompson to choreograph a number for the historic Battle of Versailles fashion show, which pitted New York fashion designers against French designers in a show that would put any of the international fashion week shows to shame. For the job, Thompson was to return to the film that thrust her into stardom, “Funny Face,” and recreate scenes for the models and Liza Minelli to perform.  In the book “Battle of Versailles,” Robin Givhan quotes Pierre Berge stating “The Americans won because of Kay Thompson.”

Kay Thompson in "Funny Face," photo courtesy of Kay Thompson archive.

Kay Thompson in “Funny Face,” photo courtesy of Kay Thompson archive.

Toward the end of her career, authors, journalists and friends would note that Thompson began to falter in both looks and personality and began losing friendships. She died in 1998 and was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame in 2003. A book on her life, “Kay Thompson: From ‘Funny Face’ to ‘Eloise,’” was published in 2010.

Rikki Byrd is a freelance writer and fashion scholar living in Brooklyn by way of St. Louis. Amidst her adventures in New York City, her tiring life as a full-time graduate student and the countless hours she spends fighting with her hair, she teaches at Parsons and writes about fashion, culture and race. 

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