If I didn’t know better, I would claim that someone at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco knows that March is my birthday month. Not only did Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland open at the deYoung at the beginning of the month — institutions I visited frequently while earning my master’s degree in Edinburgh — but High Style: The Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection opened a week and a half ago at the Legion of Honor. I was lucky enough to visit on Saturday as part of a Costume Society of America, Western Region event.
I had been aware of the wealth that is the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection, even while a graduate student new to the field. This speaks to the magnitude of the collection, that even in cold Edinburgh with the Victoria & Albert a four-hour train ride away, I was avidly following the Brooklyn Museum-Metropolitan Museum of Art costume collection merger. Not that I need tell anyone reading this blog that this is an incredible collection. That being said, I was extremely keen to see High Style, since as a California resident I had no idea when I would have such an opportunity again.
The exhibition was extremely popular, as fashion and costume exhibitions are wont to be, with a hugely diverse audience. The exhibition moves to a certain extent through decades which gives a sense of continuity and impressions of a general aesthetic for each era from 1900 to the 1980s. This was an intriguing background for the clothing of the visitors who might be “old” or “young” (both being relative terms), from hipsters to well, anyone and everyone else. To me, this diversity speaks to the universal appeal fashion exhibitions have to the public, especially when they are as well done as this one.
I went through the exhibition twice. Once with my ‘Worn Through Managing Editor’ cap on, the other as myself — because it was such an amazing exhibition. Having purchased and looked through the catalogue after these two walkthroughs, it became very apparent that the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF) selected only a small portion of the collection available to them. This was clearly both purposefully and masterfully done. While the late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century historian in me is a bit sad that I did not get to drool to the side of the garments from those eras, I was extremely impressed by this exhibition, and surprised to be.
Considering the wealth of talent in the Bay Area, the FAMSF museums often fall short in the exhibition design department. There is a lot of stepping on toes, nearly colliding with other patrons, and looking lost as you look for the next audiotour track number — if you are using an audiotour — because where you are supposed to go next is anything but clear. This may be a personal quirk of mine, but the flow of an exhibition’s layout and design is something that I am always hypercritical of when I am visiting exhibitions. Even when I enjoy an exhibition, I can feel myself tut-tutting at the layout in the back of my mind if it is very noticeably vague. I don’t want to be distracted by the art because I’ve just nearly — or possibly not “just nearly” — collided with another visitor. This is possibly unfair — one of those “museum insiders make the worst museum visitors” instances — since I am fully aware that the museums are often left adapting spaces that are not ideal, but it is still something that needles me. That being said, High Style is beautifully laid out and uses the temporary exhibition space in the Legion of Honor’s basement to perfection.
The FAMSF selections as I said take full advantage of the catalogue offered them by the Brooklyn Museum, but to tell a story they wish to tell. The story they chose is the story of haute couture and high fashion from 1900 through 1980s. While the first arresting gowns are evening and presentation gowns of the 1920s — who can object to a little glitter to start off an excellent exhibition — the museum expertly uses its awkward exhibition space to give patrons a crash course in fashion history. We begin with the heyday of haute couture, with gowns by Doucet and Worth from 1900 to circa 1913. This careful, meticulous, visual lecture in both haute couture history and the history of 20th-century fashion was so well done that I was not limited to just my fellow Costume Society of America members for pleasant interchanges, instead I had the unusual experience of connecting with several other visitors — virtual strangers — but also the gallery attendants and other museum employees about the garments, their construction, and which were our favorites.
As you can see in my photo above, which shows the first group of gowns, the excellence of curation in these three gowns properly, and as completely as possible, shows the evolution in silhouettes from 1900 until the eve of the First World War. There is also the subtle detail, elegance, and exquisite workmanship that illustrates in a way no wall panel or catalogue could the expertise that goes into the creation of an haute couture garment.
From these three, the exhibition led visitors into what I have always thought of as an awkward, random room in the temporary exhibition space. You go into it, you can even exit from it, but it often disrupts the flow of the exhibition even when it’s not intended to. For High Style FAMSF made it what I think of as the “Accessories Room.” It was in this awkward space that the millinery and the glorious shoes and shoe prototypes were displayed. Again, this was brilliant exhibition planning because these objects were extremely interesting — you can see a fashion student in my photo below sketching one of them — but they didn’t quite fit anywhere else in the exhibition. And since so many of them were from the period between 1900 and 1930 that the entrance room focused on, the time frame fit: this is how (posh) people bought shoes before online shopping or chain and department stores. This is something that has long interested me: how fashion was disseminated and consumed in previous eras, so to have the design and marketing of shoes so prominently explored was absolutely wonderful.
As you exit the room the mastery of the topic becomes particularly clear to those of us “in the know.” Instead of leaping straight into the 1920s, which you couldn’t blame the museum for doing with the post-Gatsby/Downton Abbey Season 5 fever upon many visitors, you are instead treated to four mannequins in Liberty & Co. and Callot Souers garments, all dating from 1900 t0 circa 1913. This is pure brilliance on the part of the exhibition. Through seven mannequins the exhibition managed to show the breadth — including the socio-political issues — of the pre-WWI fashions without drawing so much attention to the topic that it became the only subject of the display. This may or may not have been the point at which my mother texted me to “STOP” sending her pictures because the 1910s are her favorite era and she hasn’t had a chance to visit the exhibition, yet. I neither confirm nor deny anything.
As you can guess, the exhibition followed a strict chronology from this point on. There were the gorgeous 1920s evening and presentation gowns from the beginning to peruse again — viewing the amazing detail at the backs — as well as other glamorous garments from the era and one day dress that was arresting in its exquisite, delicate, simplicity amidst the glitter and embroidery.
The next section was suitably “shocking.” I won’t apologise for the pun. The next five garments and three pieces of jewellery were all dedicated to the eclectic brilliance that was Elsa Schiaparelli. There isn’t much need to explain further, since I’m sure most if not all readers of this blog already know Schiap’s contributions to fashion history. What I will say is that seeing Schiaparelli pieces in person was a bit jaw-dropping as someone who had only ever seen them in photographs until Saturday.
I was most amazed, being able to see them in person, by the detail on Schiaparelli’s accessories. Only three necklaces were featured, but those that featured leaves were beautifully articulated to properly mimic the imperfections of color you often find in leaves. This again underlined what the true meaning of haute couture meant, even if it was executed with a sense of art and whimsy.
I was stopped dead in my tracks, however, by a Madame Grés and a Madeleine Vionnet gown in the same display. These two women have long been my favorite French designers. So, to see not one, but two gowns by each woman was nothing short of a dress historian’s dream come true.
The rest of the room rather naturally focused on post-World War II European fashion. Again, through excellent curation, FAMSF selected pieces from Dior, Givenchy, Balenciaga (swoon), Yves Saint Laurent (swoon again), and 1960s Chanel to show the breadth of silhouette, technique and elegance that Europe revitalized after the depravations of World War II.
It was from here that the exhibition diverged into American fashion design and couture. This was a brilliant contradiction — if you will — in style. As you enter (as you can see below), the main image is that of austere, classical elegance, a logical extenuation of the constraint seen in the post-WWII European fashions. But as you move about the room, first behind you and then in a counter-clockwise path you notice the differences: American freedom but innovation in shape, and overwhelmingly the sense of fun especially as concerns use of fabric and color. This is not discussed in the wall texts or tombstones at all, it is simply a visual impact that speaks for itself.
The exhibition ended as fabulously as it had begun, with Charles James. Again, this was not simply a catalogue of James’s accomplishments but a true exploration of his genius. It emphasized that while American fashion can be trendy, ridiculous, and fun, that does not preclude elegance. Featured was a wide array from James’s career, from muslins for his most famous dress silhouettes beside the actual finished garments, to trouser skirt-suits for women who married into the Hearst family and his famous clover-leaf ball gowns.
Even more spectacularly, the final “room,” if you will, was a “design studio” that featured some of James’s most complex designs below which were animated screens that dissected and demonstrated how the garments were constructed. I thought this was a phenomenal way to end the exhibition, which had emphasized the craftsmanship and couture, to show how much engineering and ability went into these incredible gowns which can only be described as works of art.
As you exit the exhibition to enter the gift shop (an evil place full of temptation), the walls are lined with original Charles James design sketches. Having done my master’s internship working with a collection of works on paper, this seemed the ideal way to end such a phenomenal exhibition.
The exhibition was unsurprising as a dress historian. It was “simple” in that it merely followed the trajectory of high fashion from 1900 through to the 1980s. However, the execution was absolutely marvellous, and I have to confess it was wonderful to simply go through an exhibition without having my “critic” hat on, or keen to learn anything earth-shatteringly new, but simply to admire the garments and the execution for what they were: the very reason I became a dress historian.
Have you seen High Style? What were your thoughts? Do you have any comments or critiques to offer? If so, please feel free to agree or disagree with me in the comments below! And if you know of any upcoming exhibitions or events happening in your area, please feel free to mention them or to email me so that I can feature them in my next column!