Fashion Independent: The Original Style of Ann Bonfoey Taylor

Ann Bonfoey Taylor wearing a Balenciaga evening coat (1962–63) at a personal photo shoot in 1971. Photo by Toni Frissell/Courtesy of the Taylor family.

Several weeks ago I mentioned that there was to be an exhibition of clothes belonging to Ann Bonfoey Taylor at the Georgia Museum of Art.  I’d planned on making the trip, and yesterday I made it down to Athens, GA to check it out.  The collection belongs to the Phoenix  Art Museum, which also organized the exhibition which first was shown there in 2011.

Having read the museum’s description of the exhibition, I knew that it included items from Charles James, Balenciaga, Givenchy, Madame Grès and Hermès.  That sounds pretty nice, but it’s been my experience that many times exhibitors tend to highlight the most famous names in press releases.  I was completely caught off guard when I walked into a room that contained not one, but  fourteen Charles James ensembles.

Charles James (American, b. England, 1906–1978) Ball gown, 1949 Silk taffeta and duchess satin Photo by Ken Howie

There were James suits and coats and evening gowns and the stunning ball gown shown above.  It’s is actually a dress and a jacket, and in the exhibition the two pieces are displayed separately with an explanation of how the two fit together.  She also had special foundation garments from Charles James, and the La Sirine gown in black and in eggplant.

Astounding as that was, I entered the next room and was met by Ann Bonfoey Taylor’s sportswear.  In this case, it was all pretty much from Hermès.  Yes, this woman went hunting and skiing wearing Hermès.

Cristóbal Balenciaga (Spanish 1895–1972) Evening dress and coat, 1962–63 Abraham silk Photo by Ken Howie

In the 1960s, Taylor turned to Balenciaga and Givenchy.  The gown and coat above was used as the introduction to the exhibition, and it is a real beauty.  But it was only one of thirteen Balenciaga ensembles in the show, and there were another twelve by Givenchy.  Mrs. Taylor was a serious couture shopper!

Hubert de Givenchy (French, b. 1927) Cocktail coat and dress, 1960s Silk Photo by Ken Howie

Most of the daywear was in dark colors – greys and black and dark blue. But her evening wardrobe was colorful and bright.  With the exception of wool plaids from  Hermès, there was a complete lack of patterned fabrics.  This woman knew what she liked and what looked good on her and she stuck with these things throughout her life.

Ann Bonfoey was born in 1910 to the family that manufactured Putnam Dyes.  She married early, at eighteen, and moved to Vermont where she took up the latest sports craze, snow skiing.  She discovered that she was quite good at it, and earned a spot on the 1940 Olympic team.  Unfortunately, WWII happened and the Olympics were never held.  After the US became involved in the war, Ann signed up as a flight instructor and she spent the war years training US Army air cadets.  By this time she was divorced from her first husband and needed to work to support her two children.  When the war ended, she turned to skiing and fashion in order to make a living.

She came up with the idea to make ski clothing, which her friend Diana Vreeland was able to get featured in the pages of Harper’s Bazaar.  She ran a shop in Stowe, Vermont, and the New York store Lord and Taylor carried her line, Ann Cooke.  The line was short-lived, as she remarried in 1946 and soon moved with her new husband, Moose Taylor, first to Texas, and then to Colorado.

Ann Bonfoey Taylor skiing. Photo by Toni Frissell/Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photos Division, Toni Frissell Collection.

This new husband had the means for Ann to have her clothing custom made by the best in the business.  She continued to pursue skiing, and she had incredible costumes made to her specifications.  At one point she went for a military look, and collected vintage and antique military hats and bags to go with her bright red jackets, which were decorated with brass military buttons.  In 1965 photographer Toni Frissell shot photos of Taylor for Life magazine and the pictures ran in an article titled “An Inventive Skier’s Worldly Wardrobe.”  Over the next decade, she became known as one of the most stylish women in the world.  Interesting, because all this fashion attention came after she had reached the age of 55.

Note cards, available at the Georgia Museum of Art

The last grouping of clothes in the exhibition were by Madame Grès and were from the 1960s and 70s.  To me one of the big surprises of the show were the Grès day dresses (seen in left note card).  For someone so associated with draping and evening gowns, she sure knew how to put together a lovely dress for day.

The two coats on the right are by Charles James, early 1950s.

  As I entered the exhibition area I was given the card above which contains a listing of terms that non-fashion people might not be familiar with.  I thought it was a nice touch.  Click it if you want to read the list.

I was disappointed to see that photos were not allowed, but I soon forgot to care, and I realized that not being able to use the camera forced me to focus on and remember the details of the garments.  Most museums that do not allow photos are very gracious about letting writers have access to press photos, and the Georgia Museum of Art even has them available for download right on the website.

I loved how the clothing was arranged.  The mannequins were placed so that the visitors can get really close to look at the fabrics and the details.  Many are situated so that both the front and the back can be seen.  There were actual photos of Mrs. Taylor wearing the garments that were on display.  In short, it was a very effective, entertaining show.

There were quite a few visitors, but the space was large, and the exhibition was spread over six galleries.  I loved watching the other visitors.  One group was a pre-teen girl, her mother and grandmother.  They were having the best time, the grandmother explaining the fashions of the 1960s to the little girl.

If you are going to be anywhere near Athens, Georgia before September 16th, you must see this incredible show.  The video below was shot at the Phoenix Museum of Art in 2011, but the show is pretty much the same.  Note all the Hermès sportswear behind the news reporter and the curator, Dennita Sewell.

All photographs are courtesy of the Georgia Museum of Art.  Do not post to other sites, please, including pinterest and tumblr.

26 Comments

Filed under Museums

26 responses to “Fashion Independent: The Original Style of Ann Bonfoey Taylor

  1. Charles James!!! What a wonderful sounding exhibit! Off to check out the museum link for photos… =)

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  2. Refresh my memory, please. Which of these designers made Jacqueline Kennedy’s inaugural Ball gown and coat? Her ensemble immediately came to mind looking at the first photo.

    The belted, gathered coats reminded me of Lucy Ricardo’s coat when she and Ethel shopped.

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  3. You have me wondering how in the world I am going to get to Athens GA before this exhibition closes. Your report is wonderful – and so enticing. Thank you, Lizzie!!!

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  4. Christina

    Quite an exceptional collection.

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  5. What a stunning collection, thank you for posting.

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  6. This exhibition sounds fascinating – what a wealth of material! I’d love to get to see this in real life, I’ll have to console myself by pouring over the online photos. Thanks for posting.

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  7. You do us all such a service with your excellent reviews! Even though I read the book that went along with the Phoenix exhibit, I had no idea her collection was this extensive.

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  8. Great collection, and Taylor sounds like a most fascinating woman! I’m drooling a bit over that tie front Grès dress and the belted Charles James coat on the note cards.

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    • Honestly, I left with a new appreciation of Grès. I’d always just thought of her draped and pleated evening dresses, and there is an exceptional example in the collection. But her day wear had gone completely under my radar. Her details were amazing. In the front tie dress, the ties are extensions of the pocket detail, and they loop through the belt. And look at the close-up of the other dress. The zipper extends from the neck over the top of the sleeve. Not to mention that leather inset!

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  9. I saw this show in Phoenix on a visit to the Grand Canyon. Guess which I enjoyed more? (hint: to me the Grand Canyon looked like a theatrical backdrop) The exhibit is so well done on many levels. Yes, the beautiful clothes, but also her own story. Just fascinating. I’m so glad it is traveling and thrilled you had a chance to see and write about it. PS I did come away thinking A) as she was such a perfectionist, Anne might have been a trifle difficult to co-exist with and B) her husband(s) must have adored her to indulge her so.

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    • I think husband #2 did indulge her. She was not happy to leave the Northeast for Texas, and then to spend her life in Colorado, so I’m sure a lot of compromising was done to ensure her happiness. At any rate, a Givenchy wardrobe would make me happy!

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  10. If you do go back, call me and I’ll go with! Had a wonderful time. Funny your visit was a bit crowded, as I was entirely alone in the exhibit hall for nearly the entire time (and I was there at least 2 hours).

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  11. Thanks for the vicarious tour, Lizzie. I can’t imagine taking in 14 Charles James ensembles all in one shot, not to mention a roomful of Hermes sportswear, not to mention all the other incredible garments you describe… And I love learning about older women who became style icons!

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