Sunday, January 31, 2016

A Tale of Two Museums (Redux)

So when we last met I escorted you through the Jacqueline de Ribes Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum. It was lovely…ish. Maybe I would have been more enthusiastic had I not just come from The Museum at FIT. One of the few museums in the world devoted strictly to fashion, MFIT is a division of the Fashion Institute of Technology, itself a division of the New York State university system (SUNY). It is logical, therefore, that the mission of the museum is to teach, and…mission accomplished each and every time they open a show. Whenever I see their latest offering I can’t wait to see what they’re going to come up with next. Maybe it just wasn’t fair to see anything after going here; MFIT is a tough act to follow.

The museum is tucked away in one of the college’s main buildings, and because of the limited space they can’t compete with the grand size of the exhibitions of the more famous costume and fashion shows at museums like Metropolitan or the Victoria and Albert. It is, however, comparable to a Fabergé egg: exquisitely crafted, always the finest of materials used, with a hidden surprise inside.

So let’s start with their current amuse-bouche before going on to the main event, shall we? Yes, it’s hard to believe that a museum this tiny could warrant two entries all its own – and one on a fabric, no less! – but MFIT really does it right. It’s also a great way to demonstrate what makes a fashion exhibit outstanding, rather than a merely a mass of gorgeous clothes.

The textile in question this time is….drumroll…denim!

It’s quite possible that you might find something in your closet under a spotlight. In fact, it might be the first thing you see when you walk in.

That’s right – the good ol’ 501 button fly. They look kind of different on display in a museum than when they’re all wadded up in a corner of your bedroom, don’t they?

The show covers denim from the 1800s until practically tomorrow, and here’s the thing about MFIT: you don’t find the same old/same old there. You’ll get to see historic garments you’ve only seen in textbooks or recreated in movies. These are work pants from the 1840s, and I have to say I find the cut of the waistband very intriguing.


Here’s the poster and the garment that helped win WWII! Some of us are still rocking Rosie the Riveter’s jumpsuit and bandana today. (Check out my own picture to the right of this essay.)

I really have to applaud a curator who’s able to demonstrate the connection between a prison uniform and haute couture by Elsa Schiaparelli, and make a stop in between for the first ready-to-wear denim dress; Claire McCardell’s “Pop Over.” (I love that the pockets look like pot holders; at least they do to me.)

I loved how they peppered the aisles with monitors showing old television commercials, huge mock-ups of past newspaper and magazine ads, and interspersed different designers and eras when it helped to illustrate a point, rather than keep everything in chronological order. 

At one point the television channel was turned to high end designer jeans…you know, I thought back then I never wanted to hear this ad again, and it turns out I was right. No nostalgia for this at all.

On the flip side, though, I found myself hypnotized by this iconic ad from the late 70s - early 80s. That was the time it seemed to be played every commercial break, and people of a certain generation (meaning mine) can still sing that jingle. Who was that girl? I really did want to know her better! As far as I know she was never identified and hasn’t stepped forward, although ‘Real Housewife of New York’ Princess (no joke) Carole Radziwell recently claimed to have been the Jordache fit model. (Ummmm…okay. If you say so.)

Sure, the jeans were nice, but I’m still waiting for the commercial telling me where I can buy her hair. Spectacular.

Of particular interest to me was how inventive trendsetters and artists used a ubiquitous garment like jeans and made theirs unique, and then how fashion houses took the style back by outright stealing ideas from the trendsetters, then branding it as their own to make a fortune. Witness the following:

Ahhhhh….these brought back memories. I spent one entire summer embroidering a pair of my boyfriend’s jeans – and denim is not easy, people – with a Hobbit theme, no less (his favorite book; great foreboding I did not recognize as I was not then nor am I now into Hobbits). What can I say other than I was young and there wasn’t much else to do that summer except listen to Carol King’s Tapestry. We broke up within days of my finishing those jeans. I promise you I am not the only one telling that sad tale.

These jeans …well…these are a different story.

Those are Tom Ford jeans from 1999, and I’m betting every former Brownie, Girl Scout and Campfire Girl that walked through that exhibit stopped dead in her tracks when she saw the description card for those beauties. “When they reached stores they cost up to $3,800, which stunned the press.” Are you kidding? The press wasn’t the only one stunned. Maybe I didn’t strain my eyes and prick my fingers all those years ago just for some long lost Arts & Crafts patch; with winter keeping me inside more it may be time to break out the loom and beads and bedazzle the bejesus out of some pair of jeans stuffed at the bottom of our hamper. (I’d leave off the feathers; among many other reasons that’s a dry cleaning nightmare.)

Moving on…

I went with a friend who started frothing at the mouth when she saw the slung-below-the-undies jeans, but I pushed past so I could drool over the circle skirt that was a veritable salute to vegetables, a food group that I love even more when it’s done in applique. 

This was part of a 50s grouping, which brought to light the fact The Denim Council was formed in 1955 to turn around an image that was being formed about the fabric; that the main consumers were biker gangs and juvenile delinquents. So much for all those cowboy shows that were on TV at the time; I guess Marlon Brando’s The Wild One and Mamie Van Doren’s juvenile delinquent exploitation films trumped TV’s Gunsmoke. Compare the outfit on the left to this:

Prepare to be corrupted….ladies and gents, Gene Vincent singing Blue Jean Bop!

After The Denim Council was created we got movies like April Love, which starred Pat Boone as the juvenile delinquent. Yes, really.

Be sure to send The Council a thank you note. They must have loved this next hit. (Actually, I do, too.) Eddie Fisher and his Dungaree Doll.


The Museum at FIT manages with every exhibit, no matter how large or small, fanciful or mundane, to make my experience there memorable. This small exhibit on denim made something that could have been pedestrian come alive. Push it to the top of your Must See list.

Next time I’ll give you my impression of MFIT’s Fairytale Fashion, the current show in the Special Exhibitions Gallery.

Here's a hint of my reaction: Fairytales can come true....


My sincere congratulations to Malan Breton for winning The Fashion Group International's Rising Star award this year for his menswear line Malan Breton Homme. I’m a fan of all of his fashion lines, but his line for men this year made this recognition inevitable. Only Malan was surprised.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

A Tale of Two Museums (Part One)

A friend was in from out of town and wanted to squeeze in the two costume exhibits I’d been talking about all in one short day. It sounds easier than it is. If you just like clothes it’s easy to stop, declare “I would/wouldn’t wear that,” and move on, but for a true fashion aficionado you (meaning me) want to take in every detail; every choice of button and buttonhole, the feel of the fabric, the nuance of color and pattern, etc. Two people with those vastly different outlooks means one is always falling behind while the other is looking around wondering where their friend got stuck, but good friends know each other, and better than that, put up with each other.

We started at The Museum at F.I.T., but let’s start with the our second stop of the day, Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style at the Metropolitan Museum, and I’ll save F.I.T. for another entry another day.

For those of you who may have missed her on your radar, the Comtesse (yes indeedy) de Ribes  has been grouped by photographer Richard Avedon as a “swan;” a sort of adjunct to the official Capote “swans,” I suppose.  In case you missed the memo, in the October 1959 issue of Harper’s Bazaar Truman Capote gave his definitive definition of a select group of women who stand apart from – above – the rest of our gender:

These are officially recognized to be: Babe Paley (the Swan Queen), Slim Keith, Lee Radziwill, C. Z. Guest, Gloria Guinness, Marella Agnelli and Gloria Vanderbilt. At some point Richard Avedon added la Comtesse Jacqueline de Ribes to the list, much to her displeasure. She feels that this sobriquet misrepresents their lives; giving the appearance of less depth and purpose. (If it makes her feel any better, I’ve never seen her name mentioned as a swan before this. If your feelings are hurt that you’re not on the list, cheer up; I’m not on it either and I got over it a few years ago.)

Jacqueline de Ribes is proud of her achievements and not without reason; many women in her position could have just spent their time lunching and shopping. De Ribes did a great deal more than shopping – she was known as a great stylist, which means she knew how to accessorize what she bought. She also did some designing, a great deal of charity work, a whole bunch of socializing, held a position I yearn for (Muse), and for these achievements was inducted as a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 2010 for her lifetime dedication “to the support and encouragement of environmental, medical, cultural, and artistic initiatives.” That’s quite a spectrum to cover.

So let’s get to what we came here for…the clothes. All the big European houses were represented: Dior, Valentino, Ungaro, YSL…and Banana Republic? Yes!

Underneath that YSL coat on the left is a Banana Republic cashmere turtleneck. She knew what she wanted – the color, the collar, the weight of the yarn –  how that sweater caught her eye is something I’d love to discuss with her, but dammit if she wasn’t right: it’s just the right thing to set off that printed wool flannel coat. 

I realize I’m coming off snarky about all this and not at all like a person de Ribes would want to find assigned to her table at a wedding, but this might explain a little: the person who put this exhibition together chose as background music one of my personal favorites (and possibly yours, it’s a pretty popular selection), Chopin’s Waltz In C-Sharp Minor; except not the entire piece. A very small piece was excerpted (“Theme A,” if you will), which runs approximately the length of an average television commercial. It is played over and over and over... it felt like I was being waterboarded by Chopin. Now, if you are going to skip through this exhibition in, say, twenty minutes, this may be just a minor annoyance. When you hit, say, the twenty one minute mark madness sets in. At some point after that…you wanna kick that swan. 

Also, file this under Things That Make Me Go Hmmmm. One of the exhibition cards noted that la Comtesse was wearing liquid eyeliner before liquid eyeliner was invented. Now, eyeliner has been around since at least Cleopatra’s time, and our Jacqueline was born in 1929 A.D. What was so different about her invention from, say, Maybelline’s 1930s cream or cake beauty aids? Inquiring minds….

Another exhibition card that caught me up short was related to a Marc Bohan dress when he was designing for the House of Dior. De Ribes moved a decorative flower from the hip to her shoulder; when Bohan ran into her at a party he asked her something along the lines of “Is it mine,” and she answered adorably something along the lines of “Officially.” Now that is a sweet story, but I think I may be missing a piece here because couture houses regularly alter their designs to better suit their clients, and I don’t know many women who don’t move things like big flowers off their hips because few women can handle big satin and rhinestone flowers smack dab on their hip bones, even if they are “walking fashion illustrations.” Even if they look cute as hell it’s going to bump into a lot of things (dancing partners, to mention one off the top of my head; this crowd doesn’t strike me as the type for buffet tables), and don’t we all want the attention to be up on our faces (to show off the eyeliner we invented)? Is this just me? And Jacqueline?

To say that Jacqueline de Ribes was born to wear these garments is an understatement. Seeing them on display is a way to admire the craftsmanship and glimpse the taste of the woman who wore them, but to really appreciate them you need to see pictures of her wearing them; her personality, her chicness, her soigné cannot be captured by an inanimate mannequin.

There is a wall of magazine layouts featuring de Ribes at various times in her life, various homes, parties, etc., and…there is just something about her that jumps out of those pictures. 

The clothes she designed herself seem to feature ruffles, which are there not merely as a trim but to serve a higher purpose; drawing attention to the curve of a perfect shoulder blade leading to wherever your imagination allows, or to flutter with every movement making the wearer irresistible to watch. 

I would love to see these blue ruffles (a collaboration with Yves St. Laurent, who designed the sequined dress on the left) in motion.

While her clothing designs are without question lovely, it is interesting to note that she was very spare with accessories with her own designs. She used her clothing to accessorize the human body. One quote of hers emblazoned on the walls surrounding the displays is:

"Christian Dior said you could not be elegant and sexy at the same time. My answer... No. It is just more difficult."
With her elegant, minimalist designs she achieved just that. My guess is that once one of these dresses entered a room all the other frocks faded into the background. Mystery lurks there.

My friend remarked that it was a shame that all these gowns would be worn once and then never worn again, but I replied I doubted that; a great stylist knows how to make something look different. I believe my theory was proven at a section of the exhibition with three YSL dresses. Purchased at the time Yves St. Laurent was selling the business and retiring, de Ribes (like many others) rushed to order the last of the true St. Laurent. What is of interest here is that she did not order from the current collection, but rather her favorite gown from an older collection, and she ordered it in three colors. She loved that dress, knew she looked great in it, and knew she could reinvent it each time she wore it. As with the Banana Republic turtleneck, these are the things that make de Ribes less “swan” and more human to me.

La Comtesse was determined to get one of her all time favorite dresses included in this tribute, but sadly the dress in question no longer existed. The Met curator explained they do not do reproductions; de Ribes does not take no for an answer. She remembered every detail, every tuck, every everything about that dress and worked to have a perfect reproduction made (with a slight change…the color) and included here. I can understand why. First, there is simply no other dress like it, and to just have a picture really wouldn’t do it justice, and second, anyone who has ever had a dress they loved – not just a favorite, but a dress they can remember so vividly they can recall how the collar felt on their neck, how the cuff hit just so, how the fabric sounded  knows what it is like to need to have that dress represented. It is not just another beautiful gown; it is a collection of memories, the gift of a glimpse of your best times, gathered up and presented with love. I’m so glad she was able to override that restriction.

There are some spectacular costumes from masked balls that…I guess people really do give masked balls! Gowns and suits and….you name it. Also, it goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway: If you can afford the dresses you can afford the closet space.

Now that I’ve vented about the music loop and taken something for my JdR Costume Exhibit headache, I’m feeling a little more sanguine about the experience. Still, I can’t say this is one of my favorites, or even that I’d tell someone that wasn’t a die-hard fashion fan to rush to see it. The Powers That Be at the Met didn’t think that this year’s major exhibition, the exquisite China: Through a Looking Glass, would be as popular as it was, so it was cut short to make way for this small collection, which is a shame because China was brilliantly done and this is… very nice.

It’s worth noting that if you want the book that accompanies this exhibit it is only available at or through the Metropolitan Museum, for reasons best known to them since as far as I know all the other books to their exhibits have been available in other venues; including traditional and online bookstores. It’s a wonderful way to enjoy the collection if you can’t get there, and a valuable resource for fashion and high society mavens. 

I don’t think I’m going to win any new friends with this lukewarm love letter. Next time I’ll tell you about what the Museum at F.I.T. is offering. That’s so fabulous it’s worth the price of a ticket to New York.

I can’t end this without some sort of tribute to one of the leading fashion icons of my generation who passed away just a few days ago. When this music video came out everything about it was cutting edge. His last work, Lazarus, is ahead of its time, too, but it’s just too…too much for a flip blog. Much love and thanks to David Bowie. No need for an explanation.

Wishing you the best of everything,