Wednesday, December 02, 2009

'Night & Day' Exhibition at The Museum of FIT
December 3, 2009 – May 11, 2010

Left Christian Dior NY afternoon dress circa 1952 Right: Christian Dior evening dress spring/summer 1956 (Photography: MFIT)

The Museum at FIT presents Night & Day, a new exhibition examining how the rules that dictate appropriate dress for women have changed over the past 250 years. Featured will be more than 100 day and evening garments, textiles, and accessories that illustrate the conventions during various eras for proper attire for a particular time of day, activity, or occasion. Night & Day will reveal the evolution of the rules that govern fashion, including periods when strictly observed etiquette was the norm and other times when more flexible guidelines prevailed.

Left: Elizabeth Arden trouser ensemble circa 1946 Right: Charles James dinner suit circa 1947

Night & Day, presented in the Fashion and Textile History Gallery, is organized by Molly Sorkin, along with Colleen Hill, Harumi Hotta, Lynn Weidner, and Tiffany Webber. The exhibition will be on view from December 3, 2009, through May 11, 2010.

The Fashion and Textile History Gallery presents biannual exhibitions examining aspects of the past 250 years of fashion. Exhibitions are curated exclusively from The Museum at FIT’s extensive collection. Support for this exhibition has been provided by the Couture Council.

For more information:

Cheri Fein
Executive Director of Public and Media Relations
(212) 217.4700;


Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Museum at FIT’s Best ‘Dressed’ List

Ralph Rucci, Infanta gown in graphite gray duchesse satin, Fall 2004. Photograph: William Palmer.

The art of dressmaking (specifically, the mix of “technical ingenuity and artistic excellence” with a focus on craftsmanship, construction, and the use of techniques “only Americans could have come up with”), is at the heart of American Beauty: Aesthetics and Innovation in Fashion, the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s latest exhibition which opens to the public on November 6th 2009 - April 10, 2010, Curated by Patricia Mears, the deputy director of the Museum at FIT, it also has the distinction of being the first one of its kind

Ms. Mears likes to refer to herself as a “throwback” in that she is admittedly most interested in and drawn to the “craft” and “connoisseurship” of fashion. That was very apparent as we chatted, while taking a walk around the gallery, which was given an effective, ‘makeover’ by Charles B. Froom, whom we interviewed in our Master of Fashion Series (“We wanted a very clean gallery, a mid century aesthetic…because the exhibit is all about construction”, Ms. Mears said).

From left: Claire McCardell, Jessie Franklin Turner
& Valentina

The approximately 75 outfits on display (“this is not a retrospective” she said), culled from 25 American fashion designers (including the Mulleavy sisters of Rodarte, Adrian, Bonnie Cashin, Costello Tagliapietra, Maria Cornejo, James Galanos, Halston, Elizabeth Hawes, Charles James, Charles Kleibacker, Claire McCardell, Norman Norell, Rick Owens, Ralph Rucci, Isabel Toledo, Pauline Trigčre, Valentina, Yeohlee, and Jean Yu), represent a broad spectrum of fashion, are quite varied, and date from the 1930’s to the present (the oldest is a dress by Jessie Franklin Turner from the 1930’s and the most recent is a trio of Rick Owens furs from spring 2010). And because the ‘beauties’ selected were displayed without regards to a timeline (different decades mixed together), it made a strong case for timeless fashion, and was further proof that brilliant, well thought out design always looks modern and does not have an expiration date.

Left: design by Isabel Toledo; Right: Charles James

In fact, in many cases, without looking at the name of the designer, or the date, it was hard to tell which was the older piece, and which was the more current. This was exemplified by the following: a Charles James taupe silk crepe dress from 1951, displayed next to an Isabel Toledo dress from fall 2005; a Chado Ralph Rucci infanta from fall 2004 which was besides a Charles James gown from 1953; a Chado Ralph Rucci cream hand knotted silk jersey gown from spring 2003 which was next to a Galanos gray silk jersey from 1970; a Narciso Rodriguez ivory coat from 2006, which was right near a Pauline Trigere cream wool coat from 1969; and Yeohlee’s black and white silk “Eye of Shiva” skirt from spring 1997, displayed next to Pauline Trigere’s plaid cape and dress, 1977, and the designer’s graphically patterned coat and dress, 1954.

In addition to the featured items being connected to one another by virtue of the fact that they have been “created by designers who utilized the craft of dressmaking as the point of departure to create beautiful, wearable objects," they also have a certain “primitive, elemental quality” in common.

Center: Yeohlee striped skirt; Right: Trigere plaid; Left: Elizabeth Hawes

When I asked the curator if she had a favorite item, a favorite part of the exhibition, or if anything in particular stood out, she immediately brought up the name Pauline Trigere. She said she knew how great a designer Mrs. Trigere was, but only began to fully appreciate the workmanship and meticulous craft that went into her designs upon closer examination of her garments (she specifically singled out the way she brought dressmaking techniques to her coats, cutting them on the bias). When I mentioned that the innovative designs of Yeohlee, (a personal favorite of mine), really stood out, Patricia agreed. She also brought up the name Halston (another designer who had several outfits on display), and motioned over to the long red ‘American Beauty Rose Gown’ made entirely of circles (16 to be exact). When I asked Ms. Mears if she named the exhibit after this dress, she said, no…coincidentally, the name had already been chosen. She also made mention of the talented Nicolas Caito, who creates the muslin runway samples for Francisco Costa for Calvin Klein, as well as the production models for leading young designers like Proenza Schouler and Thakoon.

The very modest Ms. Mears told me, “This is not a perfect show, but hopefully, it’s a step in the right direction, and the beginning of a dialogue”. (Actually, I beg to disagree: I thought it was pretty perfect). Always informative and knowledgeable, one of the most interesting points she made, is that “You have to be able to design and produce the garment in proximity together. You can’t disenfranchise. Someone who sketches the design or leaves it to an assistant, and then ships it off to be mass produced someplace else, is not making a garment with integrity”.

By the way, the inanimate dress forms on display in the downstairs exhibit, were not the only things that could be considered as ‘best dressed’. Many of the guests who attended the Opening party, looked pretty good themselves, including the museum’s Dr. Joyce Brown, Dr. Valerie Steele, and Patricia Mears, the Couture Council’s Yaz Hernandez, and some of the designers whose fashions were featured in the exhibition (Yeohlee, Narciso Rodriguez, Francisco Costa, the duo behind Costello Tagliapietra, Ronaldus Shamask, and Charles Kleibacker).

-Marilyn Kirschner


Friday, July 10, 2009

Designs On Society: Fashion & Politics

Left: Design by Thakoon Center: Design by Jason Wu; Right: Jean-Charles de Castelbajac’s sequin mini-dress, which pays homage to Barack Obama

All photos: Caroline Erb

'Fashion & Politics', the current exhibition at the Museum at FIT, explores the relationship between fashion and the ever-changing political and social climates since the nineteenth century. The more than one hundred costumes, textiles, and accessories on display reflect not only overt political themes, like the white cotton “Ike” print dress, circa 1956, but also purely cultural movements, exemplified by the liberating “Aesthetic” dress silhouettes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Since the exhibition is arranged chronologically, it provides a visual timeline of the social and political development of the first half of the twentieth-century. Rising hemlines and increasingly functional women’s garments culminate in two sharply contrasting WWII looks: a denim “Rosie the Riveter” factory jumpsuit and a sleek W.A.V.E.S. uniform designed by American couturier, Mainbocher, for the U.S. Navy.

Silk faille cocktail dress

The postwar 50’s saw a return to more conservative women’s fashions due to the rise of suburbia and the popular belief that women should abandon their wartime independence in favor of more domestic roles. The silk faille Saks Fifth Avenue Cocktail Dress, circa 1953, was perfect for chic at-home entertaining.

Of course, the 1950’s also witnessed the rise of the teenager as a cultural force and as the second half of the twentieth century unfolds, fashion becomes increasingly explicit, addressing such issues as communism and environmentalism. The most recent pieces in the exhibit reflect the current obsession with politics and social change, including Jean-Charles de Castelbajac’s sequin mini-dress, which pays homage to the designer’s fascination with Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign.

Fashion & Politics will be on display in the Fashion and Textile History Gallery at The Museum at FIT until November 7, 2009.

-Rhonda Erb


Monday, March 09, 2009

Muriel King: Artist of Fashion

Evening dress with corselet, navy-blue silk satin with chiffon and magenta ribbon,1938, USA. Gift of Muriel King. (Photos by Irving Solero, courtesy The Museum at FIT)

Sought out in the 1930s and '40s by the glamorous women of Hollywood and high society but largely unknown today, the American couturiere Muriel King (1900-1977) will be rediscovered in Muriel King: Artist of Fashion, on view at The Museum at FIT from March 10 through April 4, 2009.

This is the first exhibition dedicated exclusively to King, whose career spanned four decades, from the 1920s to the 1960s. The exhibition and accompanying brochure, organized, curated, and written by FIT graduate students in the Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice program, will introduce Muriel King to the general public, provide new scholarship, highlight her legacy as an artist, and identify her place within American fashion history.

King was one of several women designers who dominated fashion in the 1930s. The influence of Parisian couturieres such as Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel and Madeline Vionnet was pervasive, but in New York, King and her contemporaries such as Valentina, Elizabeth Hawes, and Clare Potter were becoming known as American style-makers.

Interestingly, Muriel King had no formal training as a fashion designer. She did not cut, drape, or sew. Rather, she created superb, fully-rendered watercolor sketches detailing the construction and look of her designs, which her tailors and sewing staff then worked from to construct her garments.

Evening ensemble, grey, brown, and gold striped silk, 1935, USA. Gift in memory of Mrs. Junius S. Morgan.

Born in Bayview, Washington, in 1900, King aspired even as a young girl to be an artist. She moved east when she was 19 years old to study watercolor painting and theater design at the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts. In 1927, she went to Paris, where she sketched clothes for such publications as Vogue, Women’s Wear Daily, and Femina. In the early 1930s, she started designing dresses for herself. Her friends asked for her assistance in planning their wardrobes and encouraged her to start her own line. In 1932, she opened her own New York couture salon and signed a licensing partnership with Lord & Taylor, the first department store to sell her ready-to-wear garments.

Muriel King, sketch of an evening dress, design sold to Hattie Carnegie, watercolor on paper, 1936, USA. Muriel King Archive, Special Collections, Gladys Marcus Library
at FIT.

King's career flourished in the 1930s. Her fashions were particularly popular among socialites who could afford the high prices of her couture creations. They appreciated the sophistication and sensibility of a dress designed by Muriel King, who believed that "beauty, economy, and usefulness [are] the best rule[s] for the well dressed woman." King’s emphasis on separates and day-into-evening looks created versatility and value amidst the troubled economic climate of the Great Depression, yet the quality of her clothing indulged her clients' lingering desire for luxury.

Her designs evoke a distinct interpretation of chic, best encapsulated in her motto of "cautious daring." She believed that you "put just one detail in a dress," and her clothing was lauded for its clean lines, elegant simplicity, and exquisite quality.

Day jacket, wool flannel with passementerie trim and metal buttons, 1935, USA. Gift of Muriel King.

King is remarkable for the unusual way she designed clothes. The sketches featured in the exhibition were an integral part of her "backwards" design process. In 1935, King designed the costumes for Katharine Hepburn – whom she dressed both on-and off-screen – for the film Sylvia Scarlett. This was King's first feature film. In 1937, she designed for the film Stage Door, which also starred Hepburn, along with Ginger Rogers and Gail Patrick. King was among the short list of designers considered for Gone with the Wind, and author Margaret Mitchell's favorite, but ultimately did not win the job. Her design for an unrealized costume for the character Scarlett O'Hara is among the sketches in the show.

During the 1940s, King continued to design for Hollywood, while she simultaneously created ready-to-wear collections for a wide variety of department stores. She also created Flying Fortress Fashions for female factory workers at Boeing and other West Coast aerospace firms.

King retired from fashion in the late 1950s to return to her first love – painting.

FIT Masters of Arts in Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice

FIT's graduate program leading to the Masters of Arts degree in Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice, prepares students for professional curatorial, conservation, education, and other scholarly careers that focus on historic clothing, accessories, and textiles. The program offers a hands-on approach to the study of fiber-based objects through a close association with The Museum at FIT.

7th Avenue at 27th Street
Museum Hours:
Tuesday - Friday – noon-8:00 pm
Saturday – 10:00 am-5:00 pm
Closed Sunday, Monday, and legal holidays

Admission is free.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

"Arbiters of Style"

From Left: Garbrielle 'Coco' Chanel, Mme Gres & Diane von Furstenberg
(All Photos: Randy Brooke)

Ah….style! It’s something that (in certain circles) is highly sought after, elusive, undeniably hard to define and harder still to possess. To many an ‘expert’s’ way of thinking, it’s something you either have, or you don’t. Style is a favored, almost magical word within the fashion world, where it’s often bantered around, used and abused. To wit, there is a fashion magazine named ‘InStyle’, there’s a highly influential website,, The New York Times has not one but two ‘Style’ sections (one on Thursday and the other on Sunday), and the word ‘style’ is routinely used in fashion advertisements and in fashion magazines, where it’s emblazoned on covers and used within editorial pages.

In fact, “The Secrets of Style” screams out in large royal blue letters on Harper’s Bazaar’s June cover (which features Nicole Ritchie as its ‘stylish’ cover girl) and in the last paragraph of her Editor’s Letter this month, Glenda Bailey observes that “true style is never about the pieces you buy each season: it’s about the pieces you wear every season.” Certainly, if you use this definition as the barometer of what constitutes true style, and see it as the necessary ingredient for being a ‘style arbiter’ (which the Museum at FIT defines as a “tastemaker, whether publicly anointed or self proclaimed, who has the authority to judge and dictate what is fashionable”), there is almost no woman who so epitomizes the idea of a style arbiter as the late rule breaking Diana Vreeland.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that two of Diana Vreeland’s outfits greet you as you enter the Museum of FIT’s galleries, which house their brand new exhibit, “Arbiters of Style: Women at the Forefront of Fashion” (For the record, one is a printed and heavily bejeweled Oscar de la Renta caftan and the other, an acid green Mila Schon skirt suit both of which were gifts to the Museum at FIT from DV and illustrate two distinctly different sides of the style icon).

Miuccia Prada's ‘Fairy’ printed silk pajamas

The exhibit’s organizers, Molly Sorkin and Colleen Hill, along with Fred Dennis, Clare Sauro, Harumi Hotta, Lyn Weidner and Chief Curator, Dr. Valerie Steele were on hand for last Wednesday’s morning press preview. Ms. Sorkin and Ms. Hill admitted that when they began assembling the exhibit, they were struck by the way in which everything was “interconnected” (meaning, women designers wore other women designers’ designs, they were inspired by their clients, etc.) and the effects of globalization. They felt strongly about starting off with Diana Vreeland because she was such an “influential woman in fashion” and similarly, they hailed Miuccia Prada as the “quintessential woman designer of today” which is presumably why they ended with Miuccia’s signature ‘Fairy’ printed silk pajamas from spring 2008.

Designs by Andre Courreges & Marc Bohen for Christian Dior

The exhibit, comprised of approximately 70 looks (clothing and accessories) dating from the 18th century up to the present (there are several outfits from fall 2008) has the distinction of being the first chronological survey focusing on female designers (Coco Chanel, Donna Karan, Vivienne Westwood, fashionable socialites (Isabel Eberstadt, Jane Holzer, models (Marina Schiano, Penelope Tree), fashion journalists and photographers (Diana Vreeland, Despina Messinesi, Louise Dahl- Wolfe), 20th century female executives (Rose Marie Bravo), and clientele who have “shaped fashion’s course for more than 250 years”. The works of only a handful of male designers (Givenchy, Oscar de la Renta, Halston, Yves St. Laurent, Courreges, Geoffrey Beene, Emilio Pucci) were included only as a way to view their “important clients and muses”. And so, as you walk through the rooms, you will see a Halston jumpsuit ‘worn’ by Lauren Bacall, a dramatic black Givenchy gown with a ‘frontless’ coat and Courreges skirt suit (from his first collection) ‘worn’ by Isabel Eberstadt, an Yves St. Laurent Rive Gauche ‘power suit’ ‘worn’ by Rose Marie Bravo, a Christian Dior dress and an Emilio Pucci ensemble ‘worn’ by Jane Holzer, etc.).

Collections of Lyn Devon & Ann Demeulemeester

The designs were selected by virtue of their importance, interest, and “significance” and include an interesting mix of names from up and coming talent (like Lyn Devon and the designing duo behind the label Rodarte), avante-garde legends (Ann Demeulemeester, Rei Kawakubo, Vivienne Westwood), American ‘royalty’ both past and present (Claire McCardell, Bonnie Cashin, Donna Karan, Carolyne Roehm, Diane Von Furstenberg, Carolina Herrera, Vera Wang), and of course, some of the most hallowed labels in fashion history (exemplified by Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel, Mme. Gres, Elsa Schiaparelli). The one thing that struck me as I walked through the exhibit, was the timelessness and modernity of great design. Donna Karan’s draped black jersey dress from 1987 could have easily stepped off this season’s runway, and the same can be said of dozens of other items on view, including the Chanel suit and Madame Gres evening ensemble, which made their ‘debuts’ many decades before the Diane Von Furstenberg gown from fall 2008 that they were standing beside. Great design does not have an expiration date. Much like great style.

The exhibition runs through November 8th.

Arbiters of Style: Women at the Forefront of Fashion
The Museum at FIT is located on the southwest corner of Seventh Avenue at 27th Street. Exhibition hours are Tuesday through Friday, noon to 8 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; closed Sundays, Mondays and legal holidays. Admission is free. For museum information call (212) 217-4558 or go to For further press information, contact the Office of Communications and External Relations at (212) 217-4700 or Visuals are available upon request via mail or e-mail.

-Marilyn Kirschner

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The ‘Spice’ of (Fashion) Life

Left to Right: Oscar de la Renta; Thea Porter; & Marc Bohan for Christian Dior

According to the Merriam Webster online dictionary, the definition of the word exoticism is: "the quality or state of being exotic". And according to WM, the word exotic means, "strikingly different: strikingly unusual and often very colorful and exciting or suggesting distant countries and unfamiliar cultures from elsewhere: introduced from another place or region - somebody or something unusual and striking: a person or thing that is foreign and unusual, especially a plant".

If you want to know how Dr. Valerie Steele, Tamsen Schwartzman, Fred Dennis, Molly Sorkin, Harumi Hotta, Lynn Weidner, and Clare Sauro define the term vis-á-vis the world of fashion, and see how its changed over the past 250 years, just head over to the Museum at FIT. The fruits of their collective curatorial talents, a new fashion history exhibit entitled simply, ‘Exoticism’, were inaugurated at an intimate press preview yesterday.

Included are over 70 looks (many from celebrated Parisian couturiers) which perfectly illustrate "the dialogue of other cultures" (in the words of Dr. Steele) and the way in which multi cultural influences and globalization have impacted on fashion. Unsurprisingly, it is highly visual, lush, rich (in gold, brocade, stones, jewels, etc.), luxurious, and filled with elements of fantasy (fantasy plays a large part in exoticism, according to Ms. Sorkin). After all, when it comes to one’s wardrobes, man, (or especially woman), does not live by bread alone and through the ages, even just a little touch of the exotic has traditionally been called upon to add interest and excitement.

The exhibit opens with a display of Indian saris from the 1940’s (worn by Princess Niloufer of Hyderabad), a Chinese dragon robe, an African kuba cloth, and a wedding kimono from the 1920’s and end with a tableau including current designs from global talents (but not exactly ‘household names’) like South Africa’s Stoned Cherrie and India’s Manish Arora.

Ensembles by Bonnie Cashin, Tina Leser, & Claire McCardell

In between there are beautiful 18th century and 19th century fashions and textiles, and designs from celebrated design exotics such as Paul Poiret, Lanvin, Yves Saint Laurent, Alexandre Herchcovitch, Lamine Badian Kouyate for Xuly Bet (Xuly Bet means "look at me"), and Dries van Noten (Dr. Steele was wearing a Dries Van Noten skirt with a Yeohlee jacket). Perhaps a bit more surprising and less predictable are ensembles by American sportswear pioneers Bonnie Cashin, Tina Leser, and Claire McCardell; each was inspired by trips to India and proof that even American sportswear can indeed be ‘exotic’.

1947 Mainbocher evening dress with sari skirt

When I asked Dr. Steele to single out the most ‘definitive’ (or her ‘most favorite’) look, she didn’t hesitate. Topping her list is the timeless 1947 Mainbocher evening dress with a sari skirt made of silk brocade, which also graces the front page of the catalogue. She also cited two glorious trios: caftans by Oscar de la Renta (1968), Thea Porter (1973), and Marc Bohan for Christian Dior (1970), which define the luxurious rich hippie look of the 70’s according to Ms. Sorkin; and a trio of Indian inspired gilded minis by Yves St. Laurent (1967), Geoffrey Beene (1969), and Coco Chanel (1960).

Gilded minis by Geoffrey Beene & Coco Chanel

Of course, the exhibit includes the all important accessories, which add just the right finishing touch. Noteworthy are a pair of lace up burgundy brocade granny boots by Tony the Shoemaker (1970), a gold fez by Stephen Jones (1980), a Russian hat, wide belt, and lace up espadrilles by Yves St. Laurent, and the master’s highly unusual and ornamental necklace from 1985 that features a mask shaped clasp that appears to spew the chunk gold, metal, glass, and ceramic beads from the mouth. It’s the sort of eccentric item not too many women would dare to wear - except perhaps the original and ageless exotic herself: Iris Barrel Apfel. Come to think of it, I could picture ‘Rara Avis’ wearing much of what was on display. Once again, proof that certain things always look good, are always relevant, and truly stand the test of time.

-Marilyn Kirschner