Not much is known about Frances Neady—Neady, as her students called her. She rarely spoke about herself. Fred Bennett (d. 2003), co-founder of the Frances Neady Collection and friend, helped assemble this short biography. She was born in Olyphant, Pennsylvania. Her father owned a coal mine and lead crystal factory. After a brief marriage, she moved to New York City to attempt a career in fashion. Supporting herself with modelling for coat manufacturers, she enrolled at Parsons to study fashion illustration. She impressed the director of the Illustration Department, and was offered a position as assistant instructor.
Neady herself was an imposing figure: tall and big-boned, with thick red-brown hair. She wore what became a uniform—a black or charcoal grey slim skirt, a long-sleeved black top, and medium-heeled black pumps, which she changed for worn slippers as soon as she entered the classroom. She spoke in a slow drawl, and smoked Camels whenever class breaks allowed. At the annual Parsons Costume party, she inevitably arrived in kimono and a Japanese wig, dressed as “Mother” Gin Sling from the play The Shanghai Gesture. Neady students considered themselves beneficiaries of her unfailing eye, her insistence on quality, and her respect for hard work. An understated sign of her approval (“That’s good,” or “That’s better”) could make one’s day.
Neady’s teaching of the fashion figure was based on a sound knowledge of human anatomy and on observing how clothes are affected by the movement of the body underneath. Her method involved an organic progression from MOVEMENT, with emphasis on rapid gestural drawings of a skimpily clad model (every drawing class began with a half hour of “gesture drawings”); going on to MASS: the gradual defining of torso, arms and legs as tubular forms; to DETAIL: enveloping the figure in a particular garment, and giving it a “personality”; to the FINAL: the “finished” drawing. Students were expected to think of themselves as professionals.
Her mantra was “look at THE BEST.” For her, the best were the old masters, and homework assignments often included copying Pontormo, Watteau, Degas, and Ingres. Looking at the best included dressing up and having afternoon tea at the Plaza’s Palm Court to observe the fashionable elite in their couture outfits. Looking at the best meant window-shopping along Fifth and Madison Avenues. Looking at the best meant haunting museums and galleries and carrying a sketchbook at all times to record THE BEST.