The ‘Spice’ of (Fashion) Life

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.

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’.

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).

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

Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

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