“Fabulous Fashion” Finds a Home at Philadelphia Museum of Art

The long awaited “Fabulous Fashion: From Dior’s New Look to Now” has just opened (October 16 through March 3) at the Philadelphia Museum of Art which houses the oldest and largest textile collection since 1876.  On October 11, I attended the grand opening party which was festive but mobbed. Fortunately, not only was I scheduled to go back on Wednesday for a Sotheby’s Preferred Tour, but I was to be a “featured speaker” as a representative of my late stepmother Kathleen Field, who in her lifetime donated several items from her collection of French couture and RTW. My late father Martin Field donated many more after her 2013 passing. Interestingly, they were both Francophiles who had amassed together and lived amongst a vast array of fine French 18th-century furniture and antiques — items concurrently being auctioned off at Sothebys.com this week.

Annette Friedland

Other major costume donors include longtime PMA supporter, and fellow featured speaker Annette Y. Friedland (looking particularly jaunty so early in the morning in a black and white checkerboard skirt suit ensemble), as well as fashions from the estate of Diane Wolf. Costume donors names are of course indicated on the museum label cards but I was a little disappointed that photos of the women in their outfits were not ultimately incorporated into view.

John Galliano for House of Dior 1998 & Christian Dior 1948 day dress

Billed as “a major exhibition highlighting creativity and glamour with haute couture and ready-to-wear garments and accessories from 1947 — the year of the introduction of Christian Dior’s revolutionary ‘New Look’ — to recent ensembles by audacious designer Bernhard Willhelm,” items are grouped by style or genre rather than chronologically. Often they are juxtaposed as an example of how the times have changed the original concept. Seen in the opening video/ teaser runway fashion show montage “twirling video” as Curator H. Kristina Haugland calls it, is a flirtatious hot pink faux fur collared wool suit designed in 1998 by John Galliano for the House of Dior (courtesy of my stepmother’s closet). As you can see in the video it’s runway version was slit all the way up to the nether regions however it was actually produced to be more ladylike sans slit. In contrast, next to it is a Dior 1948 pale satin day dress epitomizing the ultra-feminine nipped-in waist and full-skirted vision of the “New Look.”

Gowns by Jean Desses, Ralph Rucci & Pierre Cardin

On to the Shape and Volume section with a pairing of a 1951 Balenciaga Flamenco style gown (paying homage to the Spanish designer’s heritage) and a joyful Patrick Kelly 1988 signature multi-bowed bodice and flared tulle skirt inspired by Josephine Baker. On the opposing platform are more shape and volume contenders — a skintight, “butt ruffled” Pierre Cardin –it barely made it onto the mannequin due to its unforgiving shape — and belonged to my super svelte stepmother. It is accompanied by a red ruffled dress from Jean Desses. In the center stands Philadelphia native Ralph Rucci’s RTW Stingray Swan dress made to look effortless and require little internal support. Rucci and Friedland are both featured in an accompanying three-minute long video nearby.

By far the most dramatic examples of shape and volume are featured in the room’s focal point — a high raised platform which includes a gaggle of gowns from Pierre Cardin; Roberto Capucci’s 15-layered tulle “Smoke Dress” (he designed a “Fire Dress” which is somewhere out there in the world) ; an otherworldly ruffled Oscar de la Renta; and a Marc Bohan Fall 1988 teal gown with a train, the latter two owned by Field. I explained to the tour group that the Bohan is the one that I had asked my stepmother to wear to my wedding after she had purchased a more sedate gown without consulting me. Quel Horreur! She had already worn it to Philadelphia’s Academy Ball, but she ended up relenting at my request. I could not have imagined the scuttlebutt amongst my wedding guests — they feared that my stepmother was trying to upstage me, the bride!

Gowns by Balenciaga & Patrick Kelly

Annette Friedland’s black Cardin strapless sculptural two-piece skirt and top, which, weirdly enough, I believe she wore to my wedding, is here. She remembers that it was very uncomfortable since it had a propensity for falling down. Haugland called our attention to the fact that the fashions on this platform were displayed in varying degrees of warm and cool lighting — the better to view all the lovelies including the stunning 1947 Adrian “winged victory” burgundy velvet gown which looks utterly modern today. Mannequins created a bit of a challenge here and throughout the exhibition, as one was too short and had to be raised on its own rounded platform. Others had to have legs sawed off and were left to perch on faux legs. Some had their arms cut down, hips shaved down — pretty much every kind of mannequin mutilation was performed to accommodate the clothing rather than to damage it.

Shoe & Accessories case

Naturally, no fashion exhibition is complete without its accessories. The shoe case features Walter Steiger’s 2008-09 cut-out heel wedge which Friedland bought to donate rather than to wear. A pair of Vivienne Westwood’s nearly 7″ platform heel shoes similar to those that Naomi Campbell tripped down the runway in 1993 are also represented. Highlights of the “hat box” selections include a blue Pierre Cardin sculptured cloche; a 1955 dramatic Lily Dache of egret feathers and a fantastic flowered and vine-covered 1960 hat owned and worn by Friedland (label removed but sold by that one time bastion of well-dressed Philadelphia society Nan Duskin) that would be perfect for the annual Central Park “hat luncheon.”

Embellishment section with curator embellishment with Kristina Haugland

The Embellishment section includes a 2004-05 Giambattista Valli for Ungaro inspired by the Court of Versailles (described by Haugland as “very soft and feminine”) belonging to my stepmother which I remember her wearing to dinner at Le Cirque. A Geoffrey Beene mini evening dress; a Christian Lacroix  Spring Summer 1998 two-piece skirt outfit featuring faux fleurs and a “chocolate box heart neckline”(worn by my stepmother on repeat that summer) accompanied by matching Bennis & Edwards shoes (B&E was the Manolo of the day) and a 1968 ostrich feathered Gerard Pipart worn by Friedland to an anniversary party for her and husband Jack are just a few of the noteworthy examples in this section.

Color & Pattern section

Beautiful explosions of Color and Pattern festoon another platform with a historic color blocked Ellsworth Kelly dress based on his 25-panel painting “Red, Yellow, Blue, White.” Art Advisor Sharon Coplan Hurowitz was on hand (and had made the trip down from New York on Amtrak as well) to explain the significance of the original 1952 dress which paid homage to the French flag. Kelly at 90 years old, near the end of his career and his life, refused to recreate his original dress design when it got lost, instead creating a limited edition of 10 dresses (one of which you see here) in a shorter peppier version. Hurowitz also pointed out how Kelly’s dress predated the iconic Mondrian dress by 20 years — the reimagining was presided over by some big guns including Harold Koda and Francisco Costa.

Christian Lacroix catsuit

Haugland’s favorite piece on this colorful platform is the Christian Lacroix multicolored abstract fish and butterfly catsuit owned by– you guessed it — my stepmother. I do not recall her wearing the catsuit, but at $450 it would have been seen as a bargain. In my behind-the-scenes article on this exhibition (see article). I mentioned in my article the problems which arose trying to display this piece without cutting a hole in it — ultimately they cut a hole in the belly button and solved the problem. Someone on the tour suggested magnets.

Metallic section

Metallics are on the next platform featuring a Paco Rabanne from his 1966 Twelve Unwearable Dresses in Contemporary Materials worn by a shoeless mannequin as Rabanne famously joked that after making these dresses he couldn’t afford shoes. Other shiny examples include a Norman Norell hand sewn sequin gown and the spectacular Geoffrey Beene Mercury dress which flows over the form making a beautiful statement. A silver sequin showstopper from YSL was also deemed very difficult to wear. Even though the different shaped and sized sequins cut under the arm due to very tight armholes, Friedland claims to have worn it repeatedly being a slave to fashion. My stepmother’s strapless gold 1980s Vicky Tiel mini is juxtaposed directly across from Anne Fogarty’s (known as “the queen of crinolines”) strapless evening dress — flaunting an 18 and a half inch waist along with a 28 inch bust — perfect as an illustration for her 1950s statement on femininity entitled “Wife Dressing: The Fine Art of Being a Well-Dressed Wife.”

Black & White section

The Black and White section features, (not a cookie), but a Chanel 1972 haute couture suit — the suit remains the same to pay tribute in the year after the death of Coco; a Bernhard Willhelm skeleton outfit (perfect for Halloween) and a Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garcons coat which would also feel at home in the shape and volume section.

Drape section

Drape is represented by Balenciaga’s baby doll dress, YSL’s “New New Look” of 1959-60 with layers and layers of ruffles; a deconstructed Zandra Rhodes safety pin and rhinestone dress and a simple black boxy long bodice dress with a raw edge slit up the back by Rei Kawakubo.

Bridal gowns by Carolina Herrera, Vera Wang & Gustave Tassell

As all fashion shows end with a bride, so too does this one. PMA is famous for owning Grace Kelly’s bridal gown, but sadly it was displayed for too long on an overlarge mannequin and is unavailable for the moment. Her Helen Rose bridal cap accented with seed pearls, David Evins shoes (with a hidden penny inside for luck) and Bride’s Manual will have to suffice. Also in this section are a Gustave Tassell 1968 monastic looking wedding gown with ostrich feather ringed hood which The Met wanted to borrow for the Celestial Bodies exhibition.  On display are a Pierre Balmain gown of silver silk damask; a beaded bodice, elegant, un “frou-frou” Vera Wang; a Carolina Herrera with a striped train complete with a “butterfly” perched on the bustle — a whimsical touch which the bride wisely left off. “She didn’t want people thinking ‘what’s that on the back of her dress?’ as she was walking down the aisle,” remarked the curator.

Haugland had only a year and 10 months to execute her vision for “Fabulous Fashion” after an alternate exhibition fell through. Thankfully the donation of the many amazing pieces from the Friedland and Field collection made the decision to pursue this route an easy one — save for those pesky mannequins! Says Haugland, “After what I’ve been through with this exhibition I decided that people who make mannequins have never seen a human body!” Next up: She’s currently busy preparing far more forgiving figures for the November 11th opening of “Little Ladies: Victorian Fashion Dolls and the Feminine Ideal.”

– Laurel Marcus

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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