“Arbiters of Style”

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, Style.com, 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).

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.

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.).

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 www.fitnyc.edu/museum. For further press information, contact the Office of Communications and External Relations at (212) 217-4700 or press@fitnyc.edu. Visuals are available upon request via mail or e-mail.

-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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