Category Archives: Museums

Exploring The Charleston Museum

I always love a great fashion exhibition, but it’s also fun to look for traces of clothing and textile history in places that are not “fashion” museums.  Because the clothes we wear and the business of making textiles and clothing is so intertwined with our lives, one can find fashion exhibited in almost any museum.  That’s especially true in places like the Carolinas where cotton production and cloth manufacture are important to the economy.

A recent visit to the Charleston Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, proved to be  full of stuff of interest to the fashion historian.  The Charleston Museum has a gallery dedicated to textiles, but the other exhibits have textile history as well.  One of the main galleries is a sort of Carolina Lowcountry timeline, starting with Native American culture, and then working its way to the present.

One thing I found to be particularly interesting in the telling of the the story of slavery is how the museum focuses on the culture of the enslaved Africans, rather than on the issue of slavery.  There are some artifacts that do make it clear that slaves were considered to be property, but much of what you see is like the baskets above.  Today, many descendants of slaves still make and sell these sweetgrass baskets, and so the basket weavers are a familiar sight in Charleston on the streets and in the market.  It is an object that visitors to the city can relate to, and it shows how the skill of making them dates back to slavery.

Southern museums and museum houses that date to the antebellum period (before the American Civil War) are often criticized for their glossing over of slavery.  Personally, I’ve been to a lot of museums and plantations in the South, and I’ve never had an experience where I left being shaken by how the site interpreted slavery.  This is not to be taken as a criticism of The Charleston Museum, as they only have so much space and as a general history and culture museum, perhaps the task is best left to another institution.  I will say that I could have done with fewer Civil War era guns, and more in depth coverage of human issues.

The photo at the top is of a cotton bale.  Cotton bales were large and heavy and represent a lot of human labor.  They also have on display a cotton gin (or engine), the machine that allowed cotton production to flourish, and with it, slavery.

Of course, the big event in Charleston was the Civil War, and in particular, the bombardment of Fort Sumter.  There is a large section on the war and lots of guns.  Whoever thinks the South was short on arms during the war has never visited a Southern museum.  There are enough surviving Civil War rifles scattered across the South to arm General Lee’s army.

But as we know, history is not just the battles fought.  History gets interesting when we start to see events as happening to people.  And the Charleston Museum does an excellent job of presenting life along with the battles.

Alongside the guns and uniforms, you will also see the clothing of women and children.

There are also displays of the tools used in textile and clothing making in the home and workshop, though the floating flax wheel (upper left) and yarn winder (upper right) are a bit odd.

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I loved these little sewing accouterments, especially the pincushion encased in a carved walnut shell.

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My favorite object has to be this peddler’s trunk.  I can only imagine how exciting it must have been for an isolated farm family when a traveling salesman showed up at their door with this trunk of treasures.

Another section of the museum is a throw-back to the early days of its history.  The Charleston Museum was founded in 1773 and opened to the public in 1824. In those days museums were more like cabinets of curiosity than the well organized and mission statemented institutions of today.  As such, many of the oldest artifacts have nothing at all to do with the history, culture, or natural history of the region.

This mummy was acquired in 1893 by museum director and curator Gabriel Manigault.  The sarcophagus was added in the 1920s.  These are the sort of miscellaneous objects that collectors prized.  The interesting thing about this exhibit is that it is telling the history of the museum more than it is telling about the Charleston region.

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There is also a children’s area in the museum, with lots of hands-on activities, but also with artifacts that tell about the lives of children in Charleston.

There is also a stuffed polar bear, but I somehow neglected to get a photo.  What do polar bears have to do with South Carolina?  Absolutely nothing.

 

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Unveiled, Wedding Attire at the Charleston Museum

Wedding attire must be the theme of March, as I was able to attend another exhibition dedicated to weddings, this one at the Charleston Museum.  I’ll write more about the museum in another post, but for now I’ll just say that it functions mainly as a history museum for the South Carolina Lowcountry region.  They have a fantastic clothing collection, most of it coming from Charleston families.  In presenting special fashion exhibitions, they explore not just the clothing, but they have the advantage in many cases, of knowing who owned a garment.  Many of their garments are also documented in period photos.

Traditionally, the museum used some of the costume and textile collection as part of the larger displays that told the history of Charleston.  About twelve years ago they started having special clothing exhibitions, but the problem was that there was no space to adequately show clothes.  I remember looking at a 1920s Worth evening coat that was displayed in a flat case, in a light-filled atrium.  Not an ideal situation, in any sense of the word.

Today the situation is entirely different, as a gallery dedicated just to textiles was opened in 2010.  It’s a beautiful light-controlled space, with a variety of viewing areas, and with seating for those who need to sit and contemplate (or sketch).  The only thing I do not like about it is that all the display areas are behind glass, and that does hinder viewing somewhat, especially if there are interesting details on the back of a garment.

The photo above shows the introduction to the exhibition which consisted of three dresses from different eras.  On the left is a dress from 1927, worn by Mary Gaillard, in the middle is a 1892 dress worn by Ethel Sanford in 1892, and on the right is a 1925 dress worn by Emily Gladys Canaday.  The rest of the exhibition is arranged in chronological order.The oldest dresses were early 1800s Regency style, but my photo is so poor that it is pointless to post it here.

So I’ll take up the show in 1830, when the dress on the left was worn. The bride was Margaret Izard, and the groom was Nathaniel Russell Middleton.  The dress is hand embroidered throughout.  In the middle is the 1842 dress of Middleton’s second wife, Anna Elizabeth DeWolf.  On the wall is a portrait of the second Mrs. Middleton in her dress.  Look carefully to note that her waist was not as small as it first appears to be.

The dress on the right is also from 1842, and was worn by Elizabeth Mary Lesesne Blamyer.  And on the far right is a lovely selection of groom’s vests, all of which were made of silk and worn between 1848 and 1860.

The Charleston Museum is very lucky to have this set in their collection.  The dress was worn by Louisa Jane Dearing, and the vest was her groom’s, Henry Edmondston.  They were married in 1859.  According to the notes concerning the dress, “The bodice laces in the back with 28 pairs of tiny bound holes.” Unfortunately that feature was not visible to museum visitors.

Yes, I know this photo is really poor, but the story behind the dress is too good not to share.  The dress was worn by Louisa Rebecca McCord in June of 1865.  The American Civil War had just ended, and materials were scarce.  According to Louisa’s diary, the bride finally located ten yards of white organdy, the only white goods available in Columbia, SC.  The price was so high that the family sold their remaining carpet, some chairs, and butter and lard from their plantation in order to pay for the fabric.

These two dresses date from 1883 and 1884, and were creatively positioned in order to show the most prominent features of the dresses, their bustles.  These were in a corner with glass on two sides and so visitors could see the slim silhouette of the front and the fullness in back.

I probably need to pause here and talk about color.  The overwhelming number of dresses shown were white, or whitish.  I made the comment when writing about the bridal costumes at Biltmore that I found it interesting that all the dresses were white when the vogue of white wedding dresses did not come along until 1840.  Of course, white wedding dresses did exist before that date, and by the look of things in this exhibition, they were common.  An interesting comment was made by Jessamyn: :The main thing that changed in the 19th century was the idea that white was obligatory for a bride.”

Here’s another look at the 1892 dress of Ethel Sanford.  The museum also has a matching evening bodice.

At this point I need to stop and put in another plug for Dressed for the Photographer by Joan Severa.  Having just read that book helped me see the changes from dress to dress.

The silk dress on the left dates from 1906 and was worn by Sarah Francis.  The suit was worn by bride Alma Grace Van Keuren in 1910.  What is really interesting is that the suit has a department store label, Louis Cohen & Co, Charleston, S.C.  Ready-to-wear for women was still in the early years, and in 1910 most clothing for women was still being made by professional dressmakers or at home.

This dress was worn by Alice Prioleau Ravenel in 1914.  Note how the train curves around to the front where it is attached to the dress with a spray of artificial orange blossoms.

These three dresses are from the 1920s.  On the left, a velvet dress worn by Harriett C. Arthur in 1922.  The middle dress belonged to Annie Kangeter and dates to 1921.  The bride’s sister made the dress, which you can see on the bride in the photograph  on the wall.  The third dress was worn in 1924 by Septima Toomer Holmes.

You can see how styles were becoming less ornamented in the 1928 dress on the left.  It was worn by Cornelia Milam, and was made by her mother.  The dress in the middle was worn by Ruth Petty Pringle in 1931.  It was bought in a Charleston specialty shop, The Frock Shop.

Left to right:  1937, bride Martha Kirk; 1942, bride Jean Walsh; 1945, bride Ruth Raymond Huegel; 1948, Bernice Alice Byrd, but altered in 1989 for her daughter Amy Bassett Cole; 1952, bride Elizabeth Lamis.

The textile gallery also has a section of casees and drawers to display accessories.

And, of course, what is a fashion exhibition without some shoes?

Unveiled runs through July 19, 2016, and I highly recommend it to anyone living or traveling in the Charleston, South Carolina area.

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Fashionable Romance at the Biltmore Estate, Part II

Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet as worn by Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle.  What more can I say except this dress looked much better in person.

Also on view were these dresses from the 1996 version of Pride and Prejudice.  These dresses belonged to Miss Bingley and her sister, Mrs. Hurst.

Probably my favorite costumes from the exhibition were the ones from Out of Africa.  The designer Milena Canonero was nominated for a Best Costume Design Oscar, but she did not win.  That’s a bit of a shame, actually, because the costumes were quite influential in starting a trend for “safari clothes.”

Here’s another ensemble as worn by Meryl Streep in Out of Africa.  I really do wish you could see just how wonderful this suit is, with construction of silk.  Truly, it was my favorite.

This wedding dress is from a 1996 production of Hamlet.  Yes, Hamlet.  I don’t remember this film, but director Kenneth Branagh set it in the Victorian era, rather than the Middle ages of the original.  I didn’t quite know what to make of this dress, but I loved the way it was displayed, with the mirror view of the front.  It was worn by Julie Christie in the role of Queen Gertrude.

I really, really disliked this dress, and I can’t decide if it is the dress or the portrayal.  It was worn by Billie Piper as Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, and while I’m quite sympathetic toward Miss Price, I hated the way Piper played her.  Oh, well, the dress is all sparkly and looks like something a modern mother of the groom would wear if trying to compete with the bride.  Remember, this is a Regency era film, and the dress just did not look true to era.

A better known Jane Austin adaptation was the 1996 film, Emma.  Played by Gwyneth Paltrow, it was a sweet movie, convincingly played.  The fact that Paltrow’s figure was perfect for Regency dresses helped, though on this wedding dress, the mannequin was a bit too busty, and thus the dress is riding up where it should not be.  Still, I like this and the other Emma costume.

Again, as mentioned before, the way the tour winds through the house opened up opportunities to show off more than one view of some of the clothes.  This is the veil on Emma’s wedding dress.

And here is the second dress from Emma, though the lighting was terrible.  This was worn in the picnic scene.

This is the wedding dress worn by Frances O’Connor in the 2000 film, Madame Bovary.  It was set in the mid to late 1850, in the era of hoops and pagoda sleeves.

And another dress from Madame Bovary.

What was really interesting, was that not all the costumes were in the historic house.  There was one in the visitor’s center, and another, this one, was in one of the gift shops. This is a costume from Tess, the 1979 Roman Polanski adaptation of Tess of the d’Ubervilles.  The dress was in a glass prison, but that allowed one to see it on all sides.

I think this is supposed to be late 1880s, after the bustle collapsed and sleeves started getting puffy.  It’s a lot of look.

And finally, there was this dress, which is not a film costume, but is rather, a reproduction of Cornelia Vanderbilt’s 1924 wedding dress.  It was re-created by Cosprop, the company that produced the exhibition.  I find it interesting that the original does not exist, or maybe it does and is too fragile to display.  But for some reason, very few of the Vanderbilt family’s clothing survive.  You would think that with all those rooms they’d have plenty of storage space.

Biltmore House was opened to the public in 1930. From what I’ve read, the family was in need of cash, as most of their assets were tied up in the house and the many acres of land.  The estate was a working farm, and some money was being made from dairy cows, but it was during the Depression and money was tight.  The city of Asheville asked Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil, who had inherited the house in 1925, to open it to the public to draw tourists to the area.  For years only a small part of the house plus the gardens were open, with the family continuing to live there at times.

Over the years, the business at Biltmore has grown considerably.  The dairy is long gone, but in its place is a popular winery.  There are two hotels on the property, and a number of restaurants and cafes.  Much more of the house has been opened, including the downstairs area where the servants worked and lived.

What I found interesting on this trip was how Biltmore seems to have looked at other more touristy, attractions to increase revenue.  One thing that stood out was how they are now targeting children in some of their branding.  Using the “character” of a former St. Bernard owned by Mr. Vanderbilt named Cedric, they have made a special audio tour for kids with Cedric as the guide.  In the gift stores there were Cedric items for sale, and I saw several children carrying around Cedric stuffed dogs.

There is an attempt to market Biltmore, not as an historic site, but as an experience.  Professional photographers take each visitor’s photo as they pass through the house, much like is done in Walt Disney World, and the Titanic attraction in Branson, Missouri and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.  There are Segway tours, river rafting and carriage rides.  For shoppers, there are a total of twelve gift shops.

If you plan a trip to Biltmore Estate looking for a purely historical experience, you are not going to find it. I suggest to any first time visitor that they take the audio tour, and try to tune out the rest of it.  It is a beautiful house, nicely situated, and it’s always interesting to see how the other one percent lived.

 

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Fashionable Romance at the Biltmore Estate

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting the Biltmore Estate with friend Liza of BetterDressesVintage and her friend Sarah.  The occasion was a new fashion exhibition at Biltmore, Fashionable Romance: Wedding Gowns in Film.  As the title tells us, all the garments on display were actual film costumes, and there were some very interesting ones.

For those of you not familiar with Biltmore, it is one of the Vanderbilt mansions.  It was built by George Vanderbilt, and was officially occupied in 1895.  In 1930 the house was opened to the public.  It is still owned by Vanderbilt’s descendants and is today, big business.  The estate is a major employer in this area, with more than 2000 workers.

Over the years I’ve been to Biltmore numerous times and it always amazes me how they continually update the experience of the visit.  Six years ago they added costumes to the house tour after doing their research and seeing how popular costume exhibitions have become.  Last year they had the Downton Abbey costume exhibition, and this year they have followed it up with Fashionable Romance.

In all the years I’ve been to Biltmore, they had never before allowed inside photographs, so when we got there and found that photos were allowed, I was caught without my good camera.  I’m afraid we’ll have to made do with the inferior cellphone shots that I took.  And I took a lot of them, probably because it felt like I was getting away with something naughty.

One of the real treats of visiting Biltmore is how it is always decorated with flowers and plants.  On this visit there was the addition of drapery and ribbons, as if the house were a setting for a wedding.  Very effective, as you can see in the top photo.  This is the banquet hall, from the rear of the room.  The tour twists and turns, and often visitors are treated to multiple views of the same space.

And now for the clothes…

Despite the title of the exhibition, not all the costumes were wedding attire.  This is one of the dresses worn by Keira Knightley in 2008’s The Duchess.  As I study mainly twentieth century clothing, this 1770s dress is well beyond my area of knowledge.  As much as I would love to, I can’t say a thing about this dress other than it is pretty.

This is the wedding dress worn by Knightley along with the wedding attire of Ralph Fiennes.  This dress has the panniers and stomacher expected on a dress of this era.

The next set of costumes are from the 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility.  That is the wedding dress of Elinor Dashwood as worn by Emma Thompson, and Edward Ferrars, as portrayed by Hugh Grant.

And here are the clothes of Marianne Dashwood as played by Kate Winslet, along with her groom Colonel Brandon who was portrayed by Alan Rickman.  Both dresses looked like reasonable early 1800s dresses, though I thought it was a bit odd that both were white, seeing as the vogue for white wedding dresses came along in 1840 with the wedding of Queen Victoria.

These three dresses were worn in a 1992 adaptation of the E.M. Forster novel, Howards End.  From left to right, the wearers were Vanessa Redgrave, Emma Thompson, and Susie Lindeman.

You may have noticed that the three films mentioned thus far are all British productions.  That’s not a coincidence, as the exhibition was produced by Cosprop, a London-based costume production business.  Cosprop was founded in 1965 by designer John Bright, and he and Jenny Beavan (the recent Oscar winner for best costumes) designed the costumes for several of the movies represented.  Cosprop was also responsible for many of the costumes used in Downton Abbey, and they produced the Downton Abbey costumes exhibition that has been traveling around the USA.

This dress was worn by Helena Bonham Carter in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein of 1994. It was designed to be a wedding dress, but plans changed and it was worn in a ballroom scene.  I knew that Helena Bonham Carter is a small woman, but she is tiny.

Here’s another shot of the dress.  It was placed in Biltmore’s library, one of my favorite rooms.  It may be just that I’m so familiar with the house and that I was focusing on the clothes, but the interior of the house seemed to be relegated to being merely a background for the costumes.  I hope that first time visitors were not so distracted.

This costume and the one following were used in a 2002 BBC  production of Daniel Deronda. The book was written in 1876, and I’m not familiar with the story so I don’t know the time frame.  Both dresses have bustles, though the skirt on the green one looks to be a bit plain for 1876.  But then, I’m no expert.

When it comes to more recent stories that involve real people, the costumer is often able to begin with photographs, or even an existing dress.  You might recognize this as the Mainbocher dress worn by Wallis Simpson for her wedding to the Duke of Windsor.  Actually, it is a costume based on the original dress, which is now faded to grey and which is part of the Met’s collection.  This was worn by Joely Richardson in Wallis & Edward of 2005, and by Andrea Riseborough in W.E. in 2005.  I was impressed at how much this dress looks like the original, though Wallis definitely wore it better than the mannequin.

The dress is also based on an actual wedding dress, that of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon.  The dress she wore in 1923 to marry Prince Bertie was not particularly flattering to her, and this reproduction is downright dreadful.  The fabric looked to be a heavy poly knit, though I could not swear to it.  I didn’t see the movie, Bertie and Elizabeth, so I can’t say how well or poorly the dress photographed.  I assume the headdress was improved with a bit of hair peeking out the sides.

I’ll finish this long look at movie wedding attire in my next post, where I’ll also have some things to say about historical sites.

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High Museum of Art, Atlanta

Weeks ago I posted about my trip to Atlanta to see the Oscar de la Renta exhibition at SCAD FASH and the Iris Van Herpen show at the High Museum of Art.  For some reason I neglected to show my other photos from the High Museum.  It was the first time I had been to the High Museum in years, and I was lucky in that they also had a special exhibition, Hapsburg Splendor, Masterpieces from Vienna’s Imperial Collections.  That show has ended, but I still want to show you some of the incredible items they had on display, all borrowed from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

The painting above, by Gyula Eder, is of the Crown Prince Otto and Queen Zita arriving at the last Hapsburg coronation in 1916.  It was painted thirteen years after the fact, eleven years after the Austro-Hungarian Empire had been dissolved.  The young crown prince, or  Franz Joseph Otto Robert Maria Anton Karl Max Heinrich Sixtus Xavier Felix Renatus Ludwig Gaetan Pius Ignatius, as he was christened, lived until 2011, but never ruled.

At the end of WWI, the royal family was forced into exile, but someone took good care of their things, including the brocade and ermine outfit the four-year-old crown prince wore to his father’s coronation.

There were some spectacular clothes in the exhibition.  This poor photo of an truly outstanding dress can’t begin to show the richness of these royal clothes.  This dress was worn by Empress Elisabeth, or Sisi as she was often called.  The wife of Emperor Franz Joseph, she was known for her slim figure which was emphasized by the styles she wore.  Sisi was assassinated in 1898, and did not die immediately because her tight corset kept the stab wound from bleeding.

This 1905 court dress belonged to Princess Elisabeth Kinsky, who was lady-in-waiting in the Hapsburg court.  The train was detachable, which made the dress a lot more useful.

It wasn’t just the ladies who got to dress in fine clothing.  This jacket belonged to an imperial and royal chamberlain, around 1910.

And it wasn’t just the humans who got to dress in finery, as the horses were also decked in gold trimmings.  This horse and sleigh took up an entire display room.

The high also has a wonderful permanent collection of art and decorative objects.  I have focused in on the ones that are fashion and textile related.

Above is Alma Sewing, by Francis Criss, 1935.  We see Alma in her sewing shop, surrounded by her tools.  We also see Criss, reflected in the bulb of Alma’s lamp.

Two Ladies Testing the Water, by Jacob Wagner, 1891.  One lady is corseted, but the other appears not to be.

The Blue Mandarin Coat, Joseph Rodefer DeCamp, 1922.  This is a stunningly beautiful work, with the use of color and light.  The name of the model is, unfortunately, not known.

The High Museum has an impressive collection of American quilts.  This one Freedom, was made by Jessie Telfair in 1975.

I was thrilled and surprised to see this quilt, which I’ve posted photos of here in in the past in my review of American Quilts by Robert Shaw.  It was such a treat seeing it in person.

Is it just me, or does this snake seem to be smiling?  The maker of this circa 1875 through 1900 quilt is unknown.

In case you can’t tell because of the lack of perspective, this is a full-size chair.  Called Crochet, the chair is made from cotton crochet doilies dipped in resin.  Made by Marcel Wanders in 2006, I thought it was interesting that an item that was used to decorate chairs in the past had been used to actually make the chair.

And finally, the dog-lover that I am could not resist this huge portrait of a shaggy fellow. Thanks to CMJ, I know this painting is Wrecks 2 by Alex Katz.

I must say that I loved my visit to the High Museum.  It is worth a full day of exploration, even without the special exhibitions.  My one concern is the high cost of a visit.  Tickets for adults are $19.50, and parking is an additional $10.  I felt like the price was worth it, but can’t help but wonder if the cost might keep some people from taking advantage of this great resource.

 

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Iris Van Herpen at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta

Today I’ve got something just a bit different from the usual fashion history post.  It’s New Years Day, a day when we all look to the future, so I thought I’d give a look at some very futuristic design, that of Iris Van Herpen.  Van Herpen is Dutch, and she is renowned for her use of  unusual materials.  Her first collection, Chemical Crows, was in 2007, and the museum has a selection of three designs from each of the shows she has created through 2015.

I’m not going to go into my usual analysis of the clothes, other than to give the name of the collection, and the materials used.  Other than that you are on your own.

If you can’t get past the thought that these clothes are unwearable, let me tell you that Van Herpen’s collections also contain clothing made of more conventional materials.  More conventional, but still stunning in a way that is rarely seen these days.

Chemical Crows, 2007:  wire umbrella ribs, industrial yarn, leather

Refinery Smoke, 2008:  metal gauze, leather

Mummification, 2009: leather strips, ball chains,  laced metal eyelets

Radiation Invasion, 2009: strips of leather

Synesthesia 2010: metalicized leather strips, metal eyelets

Crystallization, 2010: Plexiglass, leather, metal chain

Escapism, 2011: hand processed plisse fabric

Capriole, 2011:  transparent acrylic sheets, tulle, cotton fabric

Hybrid Holism, 2012:  3-D printed polymer

Micro, 2012:  3-D printed polyamide with copper treatment

Voltage, 2013:  mirror foil, acrylic sheets, viscose fabric

Wilderness Embodied, 2013:  laser-cut fabric

The work is astonishing, to say the least, and I suggest that if this show comes to a museum near you that you make an effort to attend.  The show will be traveling to other museums in North America, but I have not been able to find a schedule.

Iris Van Herpen: Transforming Fashion, at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta through May 15, 2016.

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Oscar de le Renta at SCAD FASH

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.

Click to enlarge

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.

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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.

 

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