A rare opportunity to curate a fashion exhibition of objects held and worn by local collector presented itself to me back in April, and I jumped at it. Now an exhibit at Turtle Bay Exploration Park and Museum, and in collaboration with the Redding Fashion Alliance, the exhibition explores the 1980s high fashion career-wear of local Redding resident Aleta Carpenter.
Carpenter’s private collection includes iconic examples from the 1980s and early 1990s by major designers such as Valentino, Chanel, Oscar de la Renta, and Judith Leiber. It includes a ball gown, a dinner dress, finely tailored suits, as well as hats, shoes, and beautiful handbags. On view through January 12, 2020, this Iconic Fashion exhibit focuses on the excesses of the 1980s, women’s growing role in the workforce, and how couture and high fashion responded to the growing American career woman. Presenting new research, the exhibit also explores the popularity of the Southern California couture boutique Amen Wardy. Overall, the pieces reflect the culture and economy of that time, and also have stories to tell about California politics and fashion history.
Aleta Carpenter (B. 1946) was a Sacramento lobbyist at a time when there were only a handful of female lobbyists in California (in the mid-1970s). Her career developed along with her wardrobe of professional attire. And she grew to understand that clothing could communicate ideas and change perceptions, including how women were viewed in the workplace. Her professional wardrobe evolved into an iconic collection of demi-couture and ready-to-wear. By wearing these fashions in the California State Capitol, to important political events, and to social functions, she gained a reputation as one of the best-dressed women in the Capitol.
The American economy was strong in the 1980s, and more women were entering the workforce. Fashion designers recognized their need for appropriate professional, yet stylish, attire that displayed their economic power and status. Those who could afford it spent extravagantly on luxury goods. Chanel suits, Rolex watches, Gucci shoes, Judith Leiber bags, and designer denim have since become iconic symbols of 1980s prosperity.
Power Suits and Chanel in the 1980s
The United States became increasingly status-conscious during this time. Fashion insiders and designers had discovered the professional woman. Clothing became ostentatious as Americans began “dressing for success.” The baby boom generation flourished during the economic growth of Ronald Reagan’s conservative presidency. The new business wear standard for working women became the man-tailored power suit, reflecting her economic and professional power. The 1980s silhouette featured the strong shoulders and narrow waistline that defined the power suit.
The classic Chanel suit would become an icon of modernity, with a weighted chain in the jacket hemline, perfect tailoring, and luxurious finishings and fabrics. It became a symbol of status and power in American popular culture.
Beginning in 1983, Karl Lagerfeld (German, 1935-2019) took over as head designer for Chanel, bringing a youthful flare to the traditions of the brand. Included in the exhibit is a Lagerfeld-designed Chanel suit that was featured in a Vogue fashion editorial in May 1989, “Fashion: The New Summer Standard.” The article drew connections between class, power dressing for women in business, as well as the tradition of wearing white cotton in the summer heat. The following year, actress Julia Roberts appeared in a remarkably similar costume in the film Pretty Woman (1990), custom-made in the style of Chanel, by costume designer Marilyn Vance (watch for it in the clip below at the 45-second mark).
Another 1980s Lagerfeld for Chanel suit, made of denim, reflects the creation and rising popularity of designer denim, which transformed the traditional workwear into an exclusive luxury fashion. In the mid-1980s, high fashion designers including Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, Ralph Lauren, Yves Saint Laurent, and Jean-Paul Gaultier included denim skirts and jean jackets on the runway. Lagerfeld got much attention for his use of denim beginning in 1984 as a part of his strategy to appeal to a more youthful customer. Women’s Wear Daily put this suit by Lagerfeld on the cover of its September 26, 1986 issue to preview for Chanel’s Spring 1987 ready-to-wear show in France.
High Fashion in California: Amen Wardy and Fashion Island
“Due to many social and political events and commitments, a revamp of my wardrobe was in order. I fell in love with a Bob Mackie dress I saw in Vogue, and my daughter-in-law suggested that Amen Wardy was probably the only place in Orange County I might find it. I didn’t, but Amen and I struck up a lovely friendship because I wore his clothes so well (and was such a good customer!). Visits to his shop became an afternoon’s entertainment as Amen served us champagne in his private dressing room and brought out racks of clothes for me to try.”– Aleta Carpenter
The Amen Wardy Boutique at Fashion Island in Newport Beach, CA was a glamorous mecca for haute couture shoppers seeking exclusive labels. Oscar de La Renta, Chanel, Valentino, Givenchy, Emanuel Ungaro, James Galanos, Bill Blass, and Bob Mackie designs were shown during weekly fashion shows in his 2,300 square-foot mini-ballroom.
After opening his first boutique in 1977, he moved to Fashion Island in 1982. Socialites and celebrities such as Joan Collins, Joan Rivers and, even the famous accessories designer Judith Leiber, all flocked to his boutique. He featured a Chanel Boutique in 1984, quickly expanded to a 31,000 square foot space, and had a steady Valentino ready-to-wear clientele by 1987. By 1988, his customers regularly traveled from across the country to frequent his shop.
One client noted, “You’re treated like a queen, and he remembers what you have in your closet.” According to the Los Angeles Times, “the bulk of Wardy’s best customers, are mature, social women of a certain age and an advanced level of financial security; women accustomed to service, at home and elsewhere.”
I absolutely adored working on this project, and hope to build on my initial research. If you happen to find yourself in the far Northern California area, please visit the show, and let me know what you think!
Heather Vaughan Lee is the founding author of Fashion Historia. She is an author and historian, whose work focuses on the study of dress in the late 19th through the 20th century. Covering a range of topics and perspectives in dress history, she is primarily known for her research on designer Natacha Rambova, American fashion history, and the history of knitting in America and the UK. Her forthcoming book, Artifacts from American Fashion is available for pre-order on Amazon (November 2019 from ABC-CLIO). More posts by the Author »