As I neared completion of my history degree one of the career paths I considered was museum work. I even applied to several institutions in the Southeast, and was invited to interview and tour the facility of one. I went, but did not get the job, and went into teaching instead but I’ve always had a great interest in how museums work .
Had I gotten that job in 1976, I’d have lived and worked through some huge changes, especially when it comes to the display of clothing. Clothing in museums was still a relatively new concept at that time, and the idea of a museum completely devoted to fashion would have been laughable to many in the field. The idea had been tried in New York City, with the collection that became the Costume Institute at the Met, but that collection survived in part due to its absorption by the larger, respected institution.
Fast forward almost forty years and fashion museums are thriving. The latest addition to the fashion museum world is SCAD FASH, which is owned and operated by the Savannah College of Art and Design. While the main campus is in Savannah, Georgia, there is a branch in Atlanta, where SCAD FASH is located. For several years SCAD has been doing fashion exhibitions in Savannah, but it was exciting to hear they had located their fashion exhibition space in Atlanta.
Their inaugural exhibition was the expansion of one that was curated in Savannah soon after the death in 2014 of designer Oscar de la Renta. It made good sense to bring the show to Atlanta to open the new exhibition space. Even though the exhibition opened in October, I waited until last week before making the trip because there was another fashion exhibition that recently opened at the High Museum of Art (more on that later, of course).
I can’t say enough about what a great job the people at SCAD have done with this first show. The exhibition hall is quite large, and it circles around to make good use of their space. The mannequins are, for the most part, arranged so that visitors can get very close to see the details, and to see the backs of garments as well. Student docents were positioned around the hall to answer questions and to show photos on an ipad of the women who lent the garments. This dress belongs to singer Taylor Swift, who wore this dress to the Charles James Gala at the Met in 2014.
I do look at any exhibition with the bias of an historian, and unfortunately, for me, this is where the show came up a bit short. I realize that this is a museum of design, not of history, and so I have no right to expect the museum to be something it is not. Still, the older works of de la Renta were under-represented. The oldest dress came from the first collection he designed under his own name in 1965. It is the dress in the center, and my pictures cannot begin to tell you just how great this little black dress is. That white satin sash is not a sash at all; it is a built in waistband.
(I believe this is the Oscar de la Renta for Jane Derby label, though the docent could not confirm this. She was not there for the instillation, and did not see the label.)
There were several dresses from the late 1970s and early 80s, all donated to SCAD by Cornelia Guest, in honor of her mother, C.Z. Guest, to whom the clothes belonged originally. Unfortunately, none of these were actually dated, something that could have been achieved with a bit of time and research.
The remainder of the garments in the exhibition dated from 2000 or later. Even though these clothes are not vintage, they are an excellent representation of the work de la Renta did over the course of his long career. And most importantly, it shows why these clothes are so special. In order to see it, you have to get up close.
There was a lot to love in the eighty-four garments on display, but I really do think my favorites were these two, both owned by Bee Shaffer. The amount of handwork on each was amazing, with the embroidery being engineered in order to fit the pattern pieces.
The coat on the left is owned by Bee’s mother, Anna Wintour. I looked very carefully, and could not tell if this was made from an antique paisley textile. Seeing as how it was made by de la Renta when he was doing couture for the French House of Balmain, it is possible. The embroidered coat is owned by Mercedes Bass.
An interesting aspect to the show is that it includes dresses from the designer who took de la Renta’s place after he died, Peter Copping. These dresses are part of the Oscar de la Renta archive and were lent to the exhibition by the company, a practice that is not universally embraced by museum critics. In this case, however, it does allow the observer to closely compare the work of the two men. The two dresses on the left, and the one on the right with the ruffles are by Copping; the white and black coat is by de la Renta.
This close-up of the coat shows not only the craftsmanship of the house of Oscar de la Renta, it also points out the power of seeing these pieces in person, in an environment that allows one to get really close. A coat that might look as though it is made from a print is revealed to be constructed of grosgrain and rick-rack on a base of tulle.
This great little dress of checked silk is from the fall 2015 collection by Copping, and it is on sale on the ODLR website for $1395. The flowered print dress to the left is also for sale on the site. It does seem to be a bit odd to have garments that can still be seen in stores in a museum exhibition and tend to blur the line between exhibition and commerce.
Look carefully at the photograph to see Karl Lagerfeld and Oscar dancing the merengue, 2002.
Here are two more ensembles from the closet of Mercedes Bass. I adore this coat and matching dress made of red silk appliqued on black. The coat closes with large snap to the waist, and I’m sure it looks like a one-piece garment when it is closed.
This embroidered cashmere coat was worn by First Lady Laura Bush to the 2005 presidential inauguration. Several of her garments were on loan to the exhibition from the Bush Library and Museum. I remember when she wore this beautiful coat, and it was a real pleasure seeing it.
This hall of mirrors made a stunning backdrop for a collection of de la Renta evening gowns.
This gown was inspired by the Marie Antoinette film of 2006, and the star, Kirsten Dunst was photographed in the dress for Vogue. The mirrors allowed the viewer to see the front, side and back of the dress.
The dress in the center was the wedding dress of Miranda Brooks, and is unusual in that it is made from cotton. The embroidered flowers symbolize her daughters, Poppy and Violette. The more obvious wedding dress, to the left, was designed by de la Renta for his step-daughter’s wedding, and the suit to the left was worn by Annette de la Renta, the mother of the bride.
This silk velvet gown with diamante straps was designed by de la Renta for Balmain Couture in 2000. The coat is also Balmain Couture.
This visit was especially enjoyable because I was able to share it with Liza of Better Dresses Vintage, a fellow member of the Vintage Fashion Guild. It was a treat having someone with whom to discuss each design.
One thing that we both remarked on was the display of a gown belonging to Oprah Winfrey. It was displayed on a skinny seated mannequin which did the dress no favors at all. The bust was droopy and just sad looking, and the dress deserved so much more.
I have really high hopes and expectations for SCAD FASH. This first exhibition was beautiful and fun, and I loved the accessibility visitors had to the clothes. Another real plus was a little exhibition book that was given to visitors. It all makes me excited to see what SCAD FASH has in store for us next.