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Guest Exhibition Review: Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait

5 Amy Winehouse 540px*

I’m very pleased to present a review by my friend and fellow Costume Society of America Western Region Board Member, Brenna Barks.

“Back to …” By Brenna Barks

There is an intimacy present in objects of material culture that is often lost in exhibitions and academic studies. This can be especially true of clothing. It is not only worn on the body, but reflects an extremely personal choice either to express or hide identity, to reveal or armor ones self against the rest of the world.

This feeling of intense, almost uncomfortable intimacy permeates Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait exhibition currently on display at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. While raw and somewhat intrusive, it is an extremely relevant intimacy as the exhibition is designed to delve behind the tabloids and the public persona of a world-famous musician, to reveal the girl her family knew, loved, and lost.

It gives the feeling of going through Amy’s belongings in the way that her family must have done after her death. In addition to various family items, it includes her clothing from childhood through the height of her career. Things that she most valued and kept, and which her brother, Alex Winehouse, and his wife, Riva (as co-curators with Liz Selby of the Jewish Museum in London) decided best represented Amy to include in this exhibition.

First among these items are her school sweater and tie worn in both grade school and the Sylvia Young Theatre School. They could be anyone’s jumper (sweater) and tie, but they are displayed so that you can see the name labels sewn into them. The objects are shown next to private photos from Amy Winehouse’s school days. These photos reveal for visitors that even a young Amy knew what her style was, and how to express it despite a school uniform.

Cynthia Winehouse (“Nan”), Amy Winehouses’ grandmother. Photo credit: Winehouse family

The exhibition suggests that much of Amy Winehouse’s unique style could be traced to her grandmother, Cynthia Winehouse. Alex and Amy Winehouse’s “Nan” was a strong, larger than life personality whom they both felt they could talk to (and smoke a sneaky cigarette with behind their parents’ backs). She married towards the end of World War II, and believed strongly in looking her best. Evident inspirations in Amy’s style are reflected in pictures of her Nan from the 1940s through the 1960s.

Clothing displayed from both Amy’s private and public life, the theme of intimacy remains. Several portraits from early in her career, taken in her home, were displayed along with a smattering of her wardrobe. The exhibition design aimed to display objects in the same way that Amy would have seen them every day on her clothes rail at home. Her brother Alex revealed that while she often wore stiletto heels and mini dresses in public, she was happiest in the tracksuit bottoms and cut off shorts she wore at home – albeit, as the home photos show, with her hair and make-up impeccably done.

The clothing is a delightful mix of this casual attire, exquisite designer scarves from Louis Vuitton, Yves Saint-Laurent, Hermes and others mixed with fast-fashion and thrift shop scarves, comfortable bedroom slippers next to platform heels – including some by Christian Louboutin, all hanging alongside the thrift shop finds like a pink bowling jacket Amy had customized, or a pair of braces (suspenders) found in a charity shop. There seems to be a definite mix in Amy’s “closet” of her at-home clothes and some of the dresses she performed in, as though she didn’t have a true stage wardrobe. This revelation seems to reveal that despite her public persona she managed to remain true to her authentic self by wearing her own clothes on stage, not what a stylist or her fans wanted, but what she felt comfortable in. This variation of formal and casual helps present a more realistic picture of the woman, as any of our closets would do.


Installation view from Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait, Jewish Museum London, July 3–September 15, 2013. Photo: Ian Lillicrapp. Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait. On view July 23–November 1, 2015. The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.

Amy Winehouse performing in a Luella dress at Glastonbury in 2008

A couple of her outfits are set apart. The black and white gingham, Arrogant Cat mini-dress that she wore not only in the “Tears Dry On Their Own” music video, but for several on stage performances is set apart to demonstrate just that she often wore her own clothing on stage or in videos. To quote the catalogue, this dress, combined with the bowling jacket and other casual pieces she was often seen wearing in public “reflect the grass roots nature of her style and her down-to-earth nature.” Then there is the Luella Bartley dress she sang in at Glastonbury, which was apparently too small even for Amy. This is set apart to discuss her stage persona and how even with her “down-to-earth” style, fame enabled her some designer collaborations and perks, though in the end, she preferred her own clothes, it seems.

The references to Amy’s Jewish heritage are very subtle, but that seems in keeping as it is meant to reveal the woman, rather than a perception of her. The exhibition opens with a family tree of the various Jewish, largely Eastern European emigres to London who make up the Winehouse siblings’ background, various name changes over the years as the family assimilated and became Jewish Londoners, rather than immigrants. The catalogue delves deeper not only into the family history but the history of Jewish London, a community that Amy was deeply connected to through cultural if not religious ties.

There are various objects throughout the exhibition that quietly reinforce this identity. A few pieces from her beloved Nan; photographs at her brother’s bar mitzvah, or other family gatherings at the synagogue; and a cookbook, The Book of Jewish Food by Cynthia Roden, which was a present from her brother with a message from him directing her to the recipe for chicken soup if she ever suffered “a loss of faith.” You get the impression that music was the central passion of Amy Winehouse’s life, with the large record collection, the guitars, the music school performances, but that her Jewish identity was strong and so much a part of her it didn’t need mentioning or overt displays.

The exhibition ends with a quote from Amy’s application essay to Sylvia Young Theatre School:

I want to be remembered for being an actress, a singer, for sell out concerts, and sell out West End and Broadway shows. For being … just me.”

Respectful, intimate, and engaging, Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait gives viewers a fuller picture of the iconic singer as a real person, so that you leave knowing that she accomplished just that.

The exhibition will be on display at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco through November 1, 2015.

Thanks so much to Brenna for this review! For anyone not able to make it to the exhibit, the Associated Press provides this glimpse of the London version of the show in 2013:


*Image credit: Mark Okoh, Camera Press London. Amy at her home in Camden town, 2004.

Guest Review of “China: Through the Looking Glass” Ends Sept. 7 #ChinaLookingGlass

Once again, Nadine Stewart was gracious enough to write this review of the Met’s current fashion exhibition, China: Through the Looking Glass (through Sept 7). I’m happy to be able to share it with you, given the recent controversy faced by the MFA Boston over their Kimono exhibit:

The latest exhibit by the Costume Institute is like a sumptuous banquet with many, many rich dishes, so many it’s difficult to choose. The purpose is to show the many, many ways Chinese themes have fascinated and inspired Western fashion. This is tricky territory. The imaginary East is a construction of the West and is under attack as a product of colonialism. The exhibit acknowledges this objection voiced most notably by Edward Said, but states that the purpose of the exhibit is “driven less by the logic of politics than by that of fashion, which is typically more concerned with an aesthetic of surfaces rather than the specifics of cultural context.” The exhibit sprawls over 30,000 square feet and includes the 140 haute couture pieces from the 18th century to the present day displayed in the museum’s Chinese galleries and the Anna Wintour Costume Center downstairs.

The experience (and it can only be called an “experience”) is amplified by the art direction of filmmaker Wei-Kar Wei, who has selected a range of films that have dramatized China in the Western mind. They range from the “Broken Blossoms,” a 1919 movie about opium smoking, to “The World of Susie Wong,” a 1950s romance about prostitution and redemption. In the background on the Chinese galleries is the art that inspired this fantasy. It’s a lot to take in.

Moon in the Water gallery

Curator Andrew Bolton has described the arrangement of the exhibit as “film stills.” Label copy is minimal. This is to encourage one to absorb the total experience in each gallery, not focus on small details. There is a great deal of Yves St Laurent, who staged a famous China show in the 1970s and devised the signature perfume Opium. John Galliano seems to appear everywhere too, most notably, in the gallery titled “Moon in the Water” where his fantastical gowns seem to float above a small “lake.” But, there are many other treats to look for—a gorgeous red velvet jumpsuit by Paul Poiret covered with a shawl embroidered with alternating rows of embroidery and fringe, a gown by Alexander McQueen inspired by Chinese painted wallpaper displayed across from elegant gowns from the 18th Century with intricate painted Chinese motifs, and exquisite robe a la franchise with the strip after strip of Chinese florals accented with gold thread, and a 1924 robe de style by Jeanne Lanvin.

The possibilities are endless. The themes in each gallery could be the nucleus of a smaller exhibit.

The Asian galleries upstairs create a dreamlike background for the parade of gowns, perfume bottles, and, even a tiny, delicate Philip Tracey headpiece of a Chinese cityscape. Transition comes in the hallways. One is a tribute to Chinese-American Film star Anna May Wong who was stereotyped as the villainous “Dragon Lady” and the docile “Lotus Flower” till she quit Hollywood and decamped to Paris. According to Bolton, Wong’s screen persona fed the fantasies of Western viewers and cemented their visions of the inscrutable East.

People’s Republic of China gallery

“Dreamy” is not what one would call the themes of the other transitional gallery, which deals with the influence of Communist China and the utilitarian “Mao Suit,” a drab unisex garment that still inspired Western fashion. “The Red Detachment of Women,” a ballet from the Cultural Revolution plays high on the wall. The gallery also features Vivienne Tam’s famous suits and dresses printed with multiple images of Mao as interpreted by Andy Warhol.

Downstairs in the Anna Wintour Costume galleries the pace seems to quicken, partly due to the enormous projections of Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor” on two central walls. One gallery is dedicated to the cheongsam or qipao, a development of the 1930s, which evolved from the loose robes of the Manchu court to the form-fitting gown of the film stars of Shanghai. They are displayed opposite the fashions they inspired. I felt this gallery was too full and crowded. It was hard to see the pieces and movement in that space was limited by the fact that there was a film playing on the back wall. People tended to stand and watch the film, so I had to maneuver around them to get a closer view of the garments on display. I should add that I did not have this feeling in the rest of the exhibit. Even though there were plenty of people in the galleries upstairs, I did not feel like I had to strain to see the pieces.

Manchu Robe gallery


Out in larger space downstairs, those Manchu robes are displayed, each with a haute couture gown. The embroidery on the Manchu robes is fabulous. I wished I could get closer to see it. The Western couture glitters. It occurred to me that sequins are the gold thread of our time. The music in this gallery is thundering and relentless. Here some more detail would have been helpful. The symbols on the Chinese robes have great meaning even down to the number of claws on a dragon. It would have helped understand the tremendous transition over the centuries from court robes to high-end fashion if there had been a bit more explanation here.

Special mention must be made of the gorgeous headpieces by milliner extraordinaire Stephen Jones. They are elegant, often whimsical, and witty. They always add the perfect grace not to each mannequin.

I had two wishes as I went through this massive exhibit. The Museum at FIT did an exhibit on “China Chic” in 1999. I found myself wondering how it would compare with this one. Also, the Met did a fine exhibit earlier this year on the art of the Plains Indians, which contained many garments that showed how the Native American and European cultures influenced each other. Since this is another culture that is often appropriated by fashion, it would have been wonderful to have them both on view at the same time.

In the end, the exhibit is gorgeous. It’s been extended through Labor Day Weekend, so you still have plenty of time to see it. Put on your most comfortable shoes and enjoy the dream.”


Save the date (October 10): I’m Speaking at “Body as Agent” In Richmond, CA

I am so excited to have been invited to speak at the Richmond Art Center’s symposium, accompanying the exhibition, “Body as Agent: Changing Fashion Art.” The exhibition opens on September 12, and the symposium will be on October 10, from 10am-4:30pm.

This symposium is held in conjunction with the exhibition Body as Agent: Changing Fashion Art. The exhibition shows wearable art, still featuring chic clothing and accessories, but has added the vibrations of upcycling which enhances the visual vocabulary of artists. In addition, this exhibition of California artists further expands notions of clothing to include works of art with garment forms serving as metaphors for social, political and social issues as found in painting, photography, print making and sculpture.”

I’ll be speaking right after lunch, and space is limited, so register now by following this link:

Symposium Registration

($35 registration fee includes a box lunch.)

 Full Program

10:00 Welcome, Inez Brooks-Myers, Richmond Art Center Board Vice President
10:10 20th Century Artwear: Heritage and Inspiration, Melissa Leventon, Principle, Curatrix
11:10 Creating the Obiko Digital Archives: Documenting the Bay Area ArtWear Movement of the 1970s
and 1980s, Ana Lisa Hedstrom, Artist/Shibori Master
11:40 Q&A
11:55 Lunch and time to view exhibition
1:30 Reconvene
1:35 Elizabeth Ginno’s Costume Etchings at the 1940 Exposition on Treasure Island, Heather Vaughan
Lee, Fashion Historian
2:05 Carol Lee Shanks, Artist
2:25 Chris Francis, Artist
2:45 Break
3:00 emiko oye, Artist
3:20 Dolores R. Gray, Artist
3:40 Suzanne Lacke, Artist
4:00 Q&A

Help save the Helen Larson Costume Collection @FIDMMuseum with #4for400


Today, the FIDM Museum launches the #4for400 project, a fundraising campaign for the acquisition of the Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection. If successful, this remarkable collection will be kept in tact and available for research, exhibition, and inspiration.

The Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection ranges from gowns worn by Queen Victoria (along with the clothing of 3 Empresses and 10 Princesses) to stunning couture creations of the twentieth century. It includes 22 haute couture designers including Paquin, Doucet, Chanel, Callot Soeurs, House of Worth, Fortuny, Lucile, Felix, Beer, and Lanvin.

These pieces were collected by Helen Larson, a successful Southern California collector and entrepreneur who understood the importance of fashion history. It is the only collection of this caliber in the world. The Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection encompasses more than 1,400 pieces and represents 400 years of history (A man’s red velvet jerkin is the earliest piece, dating to 1600)– but this critically important collection could be broken up and lost forever. The Museum has until the end of 2015 to raise the remaining $2 million needed to purchase the collection for our institution. Without these funds, the collection will be dispersed or absorbed into another private collection, inaccessible to students, researchers, and the general public.

Here is how you can help:

  • Follow the FIDM Museum on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for details.
  • On 8/4 (TODAY!), donate $4, $40, $400, or $4,000 (or more!) by texting “MUSEUM” to 243-725.
  • Share, Like, Re-Gram, and Re-Tweet #4for400 posts from the FIDM Museum.
  • Forward this post to friends who are also interested in preserving fashion history.
  • Ask your favorite celebrities/politicians/persons of interest to support #4for400 on social media.
  • Join the #4for400 Open House (Today!) at the FIDM Museum, Los Angeles from 3:00 – 7:00 p.m. (with refreshments, raffles, music, and gallery tours).

All donations to the FIDM Museum are tax-deductible. If you would like to donate by check, make it out to “FIDM Museum and Library, Inc.” and mail it to

FIDM Museum #4for400

919 S. Grand Ave, Suite 250

Los Angeles, CA 90015


P.S. Follow the Twitter action here.

PSS: To the folks at FIDM Museum, I say “May the 4th be with you” :)

25th Anniversary of Tortora and Marcketti’s Survey of Historic Costume

First published in 1989, Survey of Historic Costume by Phyllis G. Tortora would become a best-selling Fashion history textbook. For the 25th Anniversary edition, Tortora is joined by  a new co-author, Sara B. Marcketti, an Associate Professor at Iowa State University.

But, after 25 years, what could really be that different? It seems the publisher has been listening to professors feedback about the volume, and now authors have “decreased the length of part openers and made chapters a more manageable length.” In addition to adding a new Chapter 20, “The New Millennium,” which “places greater emphasis on major fashion events of this century, making this book as current as possible and more relevant to the study of fashion today.”

Additionally, the book comes with a new online student resource, “Survey of Historic Costume STUDIO.” It includes chapter videos, self-quizzes, flashcards, maps, a Fashion Designer index, and links to fashion museums, costume collections, and online resources. For the professor, STUIDO includes an image library, PowerPoint slides for each chapter, a test bank, and an instructors guide (including sample Syllabi).

More information on this resource (available to students in July 2015) is provided in this video :

Guest Book Review: Fashion Victims


Way back in February, Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell kindly provided a guest post on Fashion Historia (“When Redskin Was the New Black”). Now, Mark Hutter has generously provided a review Chrisman-Cambell’s book Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette (Yale University Press, 2015). Hutter is the Senior Tailor in the Department of Historic Trades at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. His studies focus upon the social, political, industrial, and economic contexts of 17th and 18th century clothing. Hutter is a long time member and officer of the Costume Society of America. Enjoy!

Discussions and depictions of fashion in France on the eve of the Revolution have long focused on the visible extremes of the era and have often heaped blame for the extravagances directly on the ill-fated head of the Queen. In folklore and many traditional histories, the fashions, particularly those of the court, are dismissed as excessive frivolities, the Queen as vain, and the Revolution is justified as the inevitable means of righting these wrongs amongst others. Only in recent decades has an academic approach been applied to better understand the extraordinary complexities of the relationships between fashion, politics, economics, industry, media, celebrity and the makers, wearers, and observers of la mode Ancien and le mode Révolutionnaire. In her new book, Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie Anoinette, Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell masterfully discusses and explains these complexities with the familiarity of an eyewitness and the hindsight of the best of historians.

Some authors have undertaken broad studies the immense subject of this revolution in fashion and politics. Daniel Roche’s Culture and Clothing: Dress and Fashion in the ancient régime (1994) and Madeleine Delpierre’s Dress in France in the Eighteenth Century (1998) have served as the best introductions to the age. Other scholars have provided deeper analysis of certain aspects of the tumultuous era: Richard Wrigley, Politics of Appearance: Representations of Dress in Revolutionary France (2002); Clare Crowston, Fabricating Women: The Seamstresses of Old Regime France, 1765-1791 (2001); Jennifer Jones, Sexing “La Mode”: Gender, Fashion, and Commercial Culture in Old Regime France (2004); Caroline Weber, The Queen of Fashion, What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution (2006). The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s tremendously successful Dangerous Liaisons exhibit and catalogue (2006), sensuously illustrated the seductive relationship between Ancien Régime literature and fashion.

In Fashion Victims, Chrisman-Campbell seamlessly reconstructs the most complete depiction of the glitter before the gore, but she is not blinded by it. Fashion, both the manufacture and the consumption of it, is proven to be a powerful political machine. La mode was simultaneously reflective of and influential upon the shifting morals, philosophies, and alliances that resulted in the great social and governmental changes of the Revolution. The changes in French fashion- sartorial, ideological, and political- resonated globally. Chrisman-Campbell does not rely on her own words to convince the reader of the scale and importance of fashion, but draws from an impressive array of period authors, including many original manuscripts, as well as works unpublished since the eighteenth century. Her depth of understanding adds new insight to more familiar sources. Chrisman-Campbell skillfully translates old French, maintaining the nuance of the original commentators, and adds to these a compelling narrative and analysis of her own. The result is unrivaled.

The depth and quality of Chrisman-Campbell’s research and the intelligence of her interpretation is exemplified by her sustained discussions of particular phenomena and influences within fashion. The chapters on à l’Américaine and Anglomania, prove these trends to not be quaint mimicry but reflections of France’s international dialogue. Chrisman-Campbell teases-out the origins and importance of the coiffeur confections known as poufs, and the overt fashion victims who were les petite-mâitresses, and shows them not as mere fancies and faddist but as three-dimensional commentaries on the age, as timely, ephemeral, yet influential as the modern magazine cover and celebrity. The chapter on Figaro brilliantly demonstrates the circular relationship between fashion in media and fashion in reality.

Fashion Victims is as elegantly illustrated as it is written. The author tirelessly sought out every garment and scattered fragment purported to have association with Marie Antoinette; the best documented pieces are shown. The cast of the Court and the Revolution are introduced in countless portraits, some familiar and many not. The careful pairing of period prints with images of related extant objects and contemporaneous descriptions adds greatly to the reader’s ability to visualize the detailed styles…and the personalities, discussed. It is Chrisman-Campbell’s intimacy with these personalities, politics, and fashions that enables her to make them again understandable, and perhaps even desirable.” — Mark Hutter,


“Alamo a la Mode: Defending the Importance of Dress” in #SanAntonio

The Costume Society of America’s 41st Annual National Conference “Alamo a la Mode: Defending the Importance of Dress” is being held in San Antonio, Texas this year, May 27-30 and I’m happy to count myself among the presenters !

My paper, “Hidden Treasures: The Importance of Dress at Turtle Bay Exploration Park” (3:20pm on Friday, May 29) will include a wide swath of history related to local, state, national, and even international fashion trends, as well as some Ethnographic and Archeological ‘clothing’  (and a good, but surprising, dose of honest-to-goodness Couture!) Also, Nadine Stewart who contributes exhibition reviews regularly to Fashion Historia is presenting “The World According to (the Men of) The Illustrated Milliner, 1900-1920″ at 8:30am on Friday.

Though I’m only going to be there for one day, I’m still eager to see the presentations by my colleagues. Here is a run-down of those presenters headed out from my own ‘golden state’ of California. I hope to see you there (Seriously! please leave a note in the comments, I’d love to meet readers!)

Paper Presentations:

  • Shu-Hwa-Lin (with Li King) “Street Fashion styles influence by Chinese culture”
  • Shelly Foote “The Growth of the Ready-to-Wear Industry in California”
  • Meghan Grossman Hansen “The Michel Arnaud Fashion Photography Archive” (at FIDM)
  • Judi Diwanis “Men’s Nineteenth Century Period Patterns: Preserving the Craft”
  • Anne Bissonnette “Chemise Dresses and Embodiment Practices in France 1778-1799″
  • Sarah Woodyard “‘To her Ribbands and Lace, and Caps give a Grace': Fashioning Gender in Eighteenth-Century Women’s Caps”
  • Kelly-Reddy “Best The Politicization of Fashion in Virtual Queer Spaces: A Case Study of Saint Harridan and Tomboy Tailors”
  • Heather Vaughan Lee Hidden “Treasures: The Importance of Dress at Turtle Bay Exploration Park”

Poster Presentations:

  • Beverly Chico “The Importance of Hats in Children’s Literature”
  • Shu-Hwa-Lin “Exploring Chinese Design theory from Dragon Robes”
  • Helen S. Koo (with Seoha Min) “Exploration of 3D Texture Design Technique with Organza Fabric”
  • Casey Stannard “Robe de Style Revisited”
  • Marie Bodtkin “The Feminine Gaze: Female Fashion Photographers from Midcentury America”

2015 Brochure Now Available
Register Here

Proto”Le Smoking” from Maison Beer in 1925?

November 1925 Les Modes Beer Le Smokingcropped

“En Smoking” Tailllure D’Apres-Midi in “Toiles de Beer” photospread in Les Modes at BnF/Gallica, November 1925, page 9.


Fashion Photo: House of Worth in 1907

1907 – At the House of Worth (Via )

Exhibition Review: Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning the 70s


Yet again, the fabulous Nadine Stewart is offering us a wonderful review of a current exhibition (at the Museum@FIT, on view through April 18, 2015 (if you are headed to NYC). Be sure to check out Nadine’s photos at the bottom of the post as well!

Photo by Nadine Stewart

“Yves Saint Laurent + Halston” Photo by Nadine Stewart

“The Unlovable Decade.” That was what New York Times called the 1970s recently. That certainly the way I’ve felt about the period. I have too many memories of avocado kitchens, orange shag carpeting, huge macramé plant hangers, garish polyester double knits leisure suits, and “conversation pits” upholstered in brown velour. But, the latest exhibit at the Museum @ FIT has helped me to see the period in though a different lens. I may never really like the decade, but I can now see it more objectively.

Yves Saint Laurent + Halston does not attempt to be a retrospective of either designer or a definitive survey of the fashion of the 1970s. It uses the rich resources of the Museum @ FIT’s collection only, but that is enough to show how the two men’s careers paralleled each other. The curators in this well edited show confine themselves to a comparison of the careers of two designers who dominated the decade and come to some interesting conclusions.

The first thing one sees upon entering the gallery is a huge timeline between flashing mirrored disco balls. In the clear graphic it is easy to compare the trajectory of the two careers from the early 1950s when both careers began to the mid 1980s when Halston went off the fashion radar and Saint Laurent was no longer a young innovator, but a member of the Parisian establishment. One notable milestone is 1966, four years before the 1970s began, when YSL founded his first Rive Gauche boutique in Paris. Rive Gauche was important to Saint Laurent. This exhibit brings out the fact that the ready-to-wear line was the designer’s incubator for styles that later appeared in his haute couture line—a fact that has been forgotten over time.

Timeline at "Yves Saint Laurent + Halston" Photo by Nadine Stewart

Timeline at “Yves Saint Laurent + Halston” Photo by Nadine Stewart

1973 is another important date since that was the year of “The Battle of Versailles.” The Americans were declared the winners of this competition based on their simple breezy presentation that made the overly long, tedious French production seem tired and dated. Halston, already a well-known figure, rocketed to fame after this show. In 1975, Esquire magazine declared he has poised to “take over the world.” At this point in the timeline, it’s a good idea to enter the main galley to see how the garments compare.

Both Halston and Saint Laurent drew inspiration from menswear, exotic ethnic and vintage clothing, and previous periods in fashion history especially Art Deco and the Belle Époque. Saint Laurent made history with his menswear—Le Smoking evening suit of 1966, the safari, and “gangster” looks. All this at a time when pants were not something garments women were allowed to wear for evening or in chic restaurants. Indeed, Lauren Bacall in the 1968 American television show, Bacall and the Boys, makes this point as she models a pair of Saint Laurent trousers. “I’ll wear them everywhere,” she enthuses, “Even to restaurants! Just let them try to throw me out!”

Halson’s approach to menswear was less literal. He incorporated elements of men’s clothing into his line. The famous Ultrasuede shirtdress is fine example. It was wildly popular, adopted by women of every age in the wide range of colors. I do remember attending a cocktail party in the early 1970s where it seemed every woman who could afford it had one on.

Ethnic and vintage-inspired fashions were strong in the 1960s. The trend continued in the 1970s, with designers like Giorgio Sant Angelo mining every possible ethnic influence to produce a high end “hippy chic.” Saint Laurent took a more considered approach rooted in French tradition. His most famous collections were the “Ballet Russes” and “Opium” collections of the mid-1970s, which were dripping with Orientalist themes, but also on display are dresses from Rive Gauche, which show how he played with these themes for years. Also on view are pieces that echo Christian Dior and Chanel with influences that range from a medieval lace front velvet, a Belle Époque-inspired gown in shimmering purple and red with huge gigot sleeves, and sweater-skirt ensembles embellished with fur collars and cuffs.

Halston historicized more sparingly. He used eliminated the decorative elements of non-Western dress in favor of minimal garments that were inspired by the simple draping of ethnic clothing like the caftan and sarong.

Another important point. Both designers had very similar ideas in the early 1970s; so similar it can be difficult to tell their work apart. A pleasure of this exhibit is circular platforms on which pairs of garments are mounted. It’s fascinating to see how much alike they can be, especially the flowing gowns influenced by the Art Deco of the interwar years. Curator Patricia Mears has a good eye for important construction techniques and points out that Halston was an innovator in fine couture construction. He eliminated the interior shaping and linings. Inspired by the work of Madeline Vionnet and Claire McCardell, he also eliminated darts and waistbands.[1]

Saint Laurent, in contrast, continued to use interior construction, a remnant of his years of training in Dior’s atelier. His use of flowing materials, like Halson. gives his garments the sleekness of the Art Deco period.

After a walk through the gallery, it’s a good idea to go back to the timeline, which shows where the two men’s careers diverged drastically. In September 1977, both designers were featured on the cover of W magazine. Both were on top of their game with signature perfumes that were adding millions to their bottom line, fabulous apartments that were featured in shelter magazines, and hundreds of lucrative licensing agreements. It seemed they would go on to challenge each other into the next decade and beyond. But fashion is fickle. In 1982, Halston signed a multi-million deal with JC Penney to produce a lower price line called “Halston III.” This probably seemed like a coup for his business. JC Penney, after all, was the first American company to pick up Mary Quant in the 1960s. For Halston, the deal was a disaster. High-end department stores dropped his clothes since they lost their cachet. Saint Laurent continued to hold his place as a leader of the fashion establishment in Paris. He was honored with a career retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1983 curated by the former editor-in-chief of Vogue Diana Vreeland. By 1984, Halston had lost control of his company and could no longer design under his own name. The era of joint creativity was over.

This exhibit was extremely satisfying on many levels. It offered fresh insights into the work of two important designers and clarified why they defined their period of fashion history. By doing so, the curators allowed us to view the 1970s with fresh eyes. I may never get over those double knit leisure suits, but now, I’ll never forget the glorious work of these designers I saw on display. This exhibit is one to visit more than once.

Can’t make it to the exhibit? There’s an excellent website complete with the timeline.

– Nadine Stewart

[1] A personal opinion here. Halston got his start as a milliner, a topic the exhibit barely mentions. I feel this training enabled him to think in three dimensions—something a milliner must always do since a hat will be viewed from all angles. He was especially known for his ability to drape a turban, work that requires a fluid ability to work with material without an underlying structure. I think this contributed to his design of gowns that flowed and were wrapped and tied around the body, which became his signature style.