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, www.fitnyc.edu. 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).
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 Trigère, 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.
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.
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).