On March 14th, The Legion of Honor entered the world of fashion exhibitions with a spectacular show that chronicles the style of 20th Century European and American designers, as well as the tastes of the American socialites who patronized them. Aptly named, High Style – The Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection, this exhibition includes designs from quintessential Paris designers whose brands are still big business today.
Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel, Christian Dior, the recently revived house of Elsa Schiaparelli and the once again hugely successful house of Lanvin are featured in this exhibit. Also highlighted are looks from pioneering women designers from the 1930s to the 1950s such as Bonnie Cashin, Claire McCardell and Elizabeth Hawes and their male counterparts, including Norman Norell, Mainbocher and Gilbert Adrian.
This unique exhibition is the result of a collection-sharing partnership, initiated in 2009 by the Brooklyn Museum, that established the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Brooklyn Collection, now a part of the Met’s Costume Institute, includes the most comprehensive assemblage anywhere of pieces by American fashion designers, and the definitive holdings of Charles James designs and archival materials. During the opening reception, The Met’s Curator in Charge Harold Koda, spoke about the positive impact this partnership between the two museums has had on the collection as a whole. As it turns out, the Brooklyn Museum’s collection was started several decades earlier than The Met’s collection and it includes items which Charles James himself, asked his patrons to donate in an effort to preserve his legacy.
The Charles James pieces are among the most spectacular pieces in the collection and pay homage to the legendary designer, who scandalized many of his high profile clients and was admired by his contemporaries during his lifetime. Christian Dior is “said to have credited James with inspiring The New Look” and Cristóbal Balenciaga lauded James as “not only the greatest American couturier, but the world’s best and only dressmaker who has raised haute couture from an applied art form to a pure art form.” James was a designer who set out to engineer dresses to correct women’s anatomical imperfections and while that pursuit sounds a bit misguided, the results were some of the most extraordinary evening gowns that continue to influence fashion designers today.
A special section of the High Style exhibition is devoted to Charles James and includes 25 objects—nine ensembles, 12 sketches, and five prototype muslins that illuminate the technical mastery behind James’s highly constructed gowns.
Other special pieces include a necklace from 1938 by Elsa Schiaparelli which is notable for using the new material, clear rhodoid (plastic) with metal insects, to make a piece in which the bugs appear to float on the wearer’s neck, a flower embellished Arnold Scaasi dress that has quite possibly inspired contemporary designers in recent collections, and an early Yves Saint Laurent dress for the house of Dior called “Refrain”. This dress was designed for Dior in 1958 by Yves Saint Laurent, who took over after the death of Christian Dior. Its trapeze shape and loose waist were a 180-turn from the snug, wasp-waisted designs of his predecessor. This particular piece is also the only garment in the exhibition belonging to the archives of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
With items and dresses donated from the personal collections of Austine Hearst (wife of William Randolph Hearst Jr.), Babe Paley, Marlene Dietrich, Millicent Rogers, Dominique de Menil and more, the High Style exhibition provides a captivating look into the taste and style of the most influential designers that emerged in the 20th century. The show paints a picture of a bygone era that vigorously retains its influence, season after season, in the new collections of top designers across the globe.