Designer Diaries – Althea McNish and Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth

“Designing, for me, is part of me. It’s not just something that I acquired as a means to an end. I breathe and sleep and dream it.”

Althea McNish

Althea McNish was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, in 1924. She was the only child of a dressmaker and a teacher who was also a writer. Her creative childhood had an enormous impact on her choice of career. While still in high school, she became a member of the Trinidad Art Society and worked as a cartographer for the British government throughout her early twenties.

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When she was 27, she joined her parents in England, where they had moved to work. She was interested in both architecture and fashion design. Ultimately, she became a student at the London College of Printing and eventually enrolled at the Royal College of Art to study textile design.

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Immediately after her graduation in 1958, she was commissioned by Liberty’s to create a collection. Young Britain was hungry for bright and brilliant colors and McNish’s “tropical eye” was welcomed. She made Britain her home for the rest of her life, but her roots in Trinidad and Tobago were never far from her mind or her designs. Her colorful fabrics showed up on furniture, walls, and clothing.

By the mid-sixties, she was so well established that Queen Elizabeth’s staff reached out to the young designer to design fabrics for the 1966 Caribbean royal tour. It was a modern choice for the Queen, and one that drew appreciation from the Caribbean crowds. McNish had risen rapidly among the design ranks to establish herself as a creative force of note, not an easy feat in the innovative landscape of London in the mid-sixties.

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You can see the fabrics in action at the 1:52 mark in the video.

Fashions change, and McNish’s designs became less popular in the last half of the twentieth century. By the time of her death in 2020, her legacy was almost forgotten. Fortunately, the William Morris Gallery recently held an exhibition of her work which allows us to revisit some of her output. Please let us know what you think of her fabric designs!

More information:

  • This blog post has some excellent photos of the recent McNish exhibition at the William Morris Gallery.
  • More information on McNish’s background and design process can be found here.
  • If you are interested in the Caribbean 1966 tour, Royal Watcher has a nice post here. It’s definitely amazing how many tiara events those tours used to have!