The stars flocked to the dressmaker Jean Muir, but she eschewed what she saw as the pretensions of the industry. Now a new exhibition sheds some light on her very private life By Barry Didcock

THE ACTRESS Joanna Lumley once said every woman should have a Jean Muir dress in her wardrobe. Having modelled for the fashion designer from the mid-1960s onwards, Lumley's advice can be taken as fact. She was a self-confessed Muir "addict", and it's pleasing to imagine her spare room stuffed with the figure-hugging jersey dresses, flowing crepe outfits and sleek tailored suits that were the dressmaker's trademark over the course of her illustrious 50-year career.

In France, Muir was known simply as "la Reine de la Robe", the queen of the dress. In other parts she was dubbed "the Scottish Chanel", though to staff and clients at her headquarters in London's Bruton Street she was always referred to as "Miss Muir". An affectation, perhaps, but a winning one.

Lauren Bacall, Barbra Streisand, Charlotte Rampling, Antonia Fraser and the artists Bridget Riley and Elisabeth Frink were just a few of the women who found their way to Jean Muir's door. Fraser noted that Muir was also much favoured by the wives of ambassadors, recalling an event she attended in Washington where two such gilded creatures bonded over the words: "I see from your buttons we share a dressmaker." advertisement

Kristina Stankovski never made it to Bruton Street. She never joined Lady Antonia at an ambassadorial reception. Yet she has even more Jean Muir dresses than all those women put together. Ironically, however, she can't wear any of them: as curator of the National Museum of Scotland's Jean Muir Collection she knows they are too valuable to ever come into contact with human skin, hers or anybody else's.

Instead they are housed in a specially constructed building in Edinburgh's Granton area, boxed and stored in acid-free tissue paper along with the sketches, designs, tuilles, photographs, diaries and documents that make up the rest of what is an extraordinarily rich archive. It even includes Muir's desk from Bruton Street, as well as her dressmaker's dummy and some of her own clothes. It seems she never threw anything away.

Consisting of around 18,000 items, the collection was donated to the National Museum of Scotland in April 2005 by Harry Leuckert, Muir's widower and former business partner. Although she was born in London, her family was of Scottish origin and she was intensely proud of her roots, finding in the stories of Scots innovation and industry many of the guiding principles for her own career. She later served on the London board of the National Museum of Scotland, so for Leuckert it made sense to place the archive north of the Border.

As for the dresses themselves, Stankovski isn't actually sure how many the museum now owns. The number is certainly in the hundreds. It may well run into the thousands. "When we got the collection, we did a lot of research into similar archives elsewhere," she says. "We learned that because of its size and the comprehensive nature of what it holds, it's the largest collection devoted to any one designer in any museum in the world."

The process of cataloguing it is still ongoing, but this week the museum offers a taster of the riches it contains in Jean Muir: A Fashion Icon, the first of several planned exhibitions.

"It isn't a full retrospective obviously," says Stankovski. "Instead, it's an exhibition designed to introduce people to Jean Muir and the business she founded, and to show people what made her work so distinctive."

But with fashion designers Manolo Blahnik, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Issey Miyake and Georgio Armani all citing Muir as an influence, the unveiling of even a small part of the collection in Edinburgh this week is seen as a significant fashion coup for the city.

Meanwhile, students from Edinburgh College of Art's fashion department have already been set to work on a project to design a coat inspired by the things they find in the archive: the boxes of hallmarked silver buttons, perhaps, or the fluid sketches Muir would make while lying in bed in her minimalist London apartment.

Muir loved to work in buttery suede and supple leather and those materials are well represented among the 33 dresses that go on show this week. Also on view are sketches and photographs which illustrate her working methods.

Although known for her muted palette, there are some dazzlingly bright pieces in the exhibition too, among them a floral print blouse with a bow at the neck and a stiff, sculptured dress in an abstract black, yellow and blue print. Finally, visitors will see a long dress in red and black made from matte jersey. If Muir had a signature material, this is it: a viscose fabric that she started using in 1968 and which figured consistently in her designs.

"The female body was at the core of her work and that was a fabric that could hang beautifully on a woman and emphasise her shape," says Stankovski. "She loved movement and would often design garments that had a really beautiful full skirt or which were designed to enhance the wearer when she moved. She felt that explained why her clothes were worn by so many celebrities."

Fashion icon and dressmaker to the stars she may have been, but the demure Miss Muir was also a true enigma. Fiercely private, many of the details of her life are sketchy to say the least. Most sources give her date of birth as July 17, 1928, though there are other versions and even today, more than a decade after her death, only one biography has been written. All this makes the National Museum of Scotland's collection an even more valuable resource.

Muir died on May 28, 1995, two days after being admitted to hospital saying she felt unwell. The cause was breast cancer, which had been diagnosed a few weeks earlier. Her death came as a shock: typically, she had told virtually nobody that she was ill and worked right to the end.

In one particularly fond obituary, the art historian Sir Roy Strong called her 40-year marriage to Leuckert "perfect". It later emerged, however, that the German-born businessman had fathered a daughter in Germany in the mid-1970s. It also emerged that Muir knew about the girl, Friederike, and about her mother, Ingrid, and was apparently unconcerned. Leuckert later married Ingrid and Friederike wound up managing the Jean Muir shop in London's Conduit Street until it closed last year. She even wore a vintage Muir piece at her own wedding.

Beyond that, we know Muir liked champagne and jazz, always wore blue, was fond of quoting Ruskin and had a penchant for Mary, Queen of Scots. But she gave few interviews and never talked about her private life. Ever.

The fashion historian Jane Mulvagh was one of the lucky few to be invited to Muir's minimalist apartment near the Albert Hall in London. It was, she later recalled, "an all-white, squeaky clean temple imagine white walls, white floors, white upholstery, white furniture".

House rules dictated that all visitors leave their shoes by the front door and Mulvagh always found it brought out the "twitchy anarchist" in her. She longed to daub chocolate on the white sofa and paint grafitti on the walls. Instead she sat with her ankles crossed and behaved herself, grateful simply to be in the woman's presence.

Oddly, Muir did let the cameras in occasionally. In a memorable photo shoot for 1975's autumn collection, Joanna Lumley, in a brown jersey tunic and culottes, sits on the all-white bed. In another image from the spring collection of the same year, three models lounge on the same bed while Muir, wearing a simple black jersey dress of her own design, stands with her back to the window. She is a powerful presence.

Although forceful, Muir was not tall, barely five feet. To Antonia Fraser she was "a modish Puck dressed in navy-blue - if Puck can be feminine; everything about her is tiny except her eyes which are enormous". Others recalled her Louise Brooks bob, her flat-heeled lace-up shoes, her panda-eye make-up and her ever-present damson lipstick.

When her dander was up, she reminded Strong of the figure in Edvard Munch's famous painting The Scream. In her work, however, he identified an "idiosyncratic mastery of cut and materials" that made her clothes "immediately recognisable and virtually dateless As a result, her art is like a single, unending but exquisite fugue".

Not everyone was so kind. In his diaries the fashion designer Ossie Clark referred to Muir as "old tombstone teeth" and for many young, cutting-edge designers in the 1970s and 1980s her immutable personal style and disdain for trends made her seem outdated.

That disdain was deep and heartfelt. "I hate the word fashion," she once said. "It doesn't mean anything." More than that, she hated being called a fashion designer. "A self-important, pretentious term," she snapped in an interview with Vogue in 1978. She saw herself simply as a dressmaker.

Her genius was this: always, she moved forward, always she retained the timeless quality that had marked her out in the first place. It was a delicate balancing act. "Nostalgia is a sickness," she once said. "Fantasy is something to dream about, not to put on your back. Repeating clothes from yesterday is a denial of today."

It's no surprise then that hers was one of the few fashion houses to survive the 1960s. She saw off the mini-skirt in 1970 when she introduced a below-the-knee skirt, and sailed through the 1970s and 1980s on a wave of elegent and unpretentious designs. Even Margaret Thatcher succumbed.

In 1988, Muir created a suite of clothes to celebrate Australia's bicentennial - many designs were based on the vivid colours of the Great Barrier Reef - and made a small nod to the changing face of retail by introducing diffusion lines and capsule collections. The lower-priced Jean Muir Studio Line debuted in 1986 and she followed that with Jean Muir Essentials in the early 1990s, a collection of separates.

The superlatives, then, outnumber the insults: not bad for a woman who started out in the stockroom at Liberty and taught herself to cut patterns at home in the evenings.

It was to vintage Jean Muir designs that another actress, Sienna Miller, turned when she was cast in the remake of Alfie, that most quintessential of 1960s British films. She is now an avid collector, along with Kate Moss. Even so, Muir's legacy has yet to be properly quantified or appreciated. Perhaps now, 80 years after her birth and more than a decade after her death, the process will begin in earnest. So go along, admire the wardrobe - just don't try anything on.

Jean Muir: A Fashion Icon opens this Friday at the National Museum of Scotland