“Hello, gorgeous" were the first words Barbra Streisand uttered in Funny Girl, the 1968 movie musical about comedian and actor Fanny Brice, as she gazed at herself in a mirror.
Those words would be a good tag line for "Icons of Style" at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. It features 32 designer gowns and ensembles that are — hellooo — gorgeous. And among them is the provocative outfit designed by Arnold Scaasi that Streisand wore in 1969 when she accepted the Academy Award for her Funny Girl performance.
The show is rounded out by dozens of drawings by famous fashion illustrators through the years and a collection of fashion photographs by some of the greats of the 20th century.
The two most spectacular examples of haute couture greet you as you enter the show. Olivier Theyskens created a confection from silk and thousands of feathers that was worn by Nicole Kidman on a 2005 cover of Harper's Bazaar, and John Galliano designed an elaborate interpretation of the Japanese kimono.
Galliano's is probably the most important piece in this show if we base that judgment on the ideals of high fashion. A beige silk sheath with flared hem is encrusted with colored glass crystals, then swathed in a voluminous red sash embroidered with bamboo leaves and chrysanthemums, secured to the bodice with a frog brooch made of Swarovski crystals and gathered in the back like an obi. The draping looks casual, almost spontaneous, but is really the result of a rigorous, flawless design. Not a detail in this dress needs adjustment or change.
The full measure of Galliano's genius, and the full measure of fashion's loss after Dior fired him for his inexcusable anti-Semitic diatribe, is seen in the nearby video of the spring 2007 runway show for the House of Dior, of which this dress was a part. The collection was inspired by origami, Japanese art and the Puccini opera Madame Butterfly and left the hardened editors and fashionistas in attendance "speechless with delight," said one report of the show. I was ready to drag one of the little opera chairs from an adjacent gallery over to the screen and sit through several loops of the video.
The aforementioned chairs are accessories in a section of the exhibition that represents the runway, lined up like an audience before the raised platform on which nine mannequins pose. (Those chairs have a practical application, too. Several men sank into them and didn't move while I was there, presumably waiting for their wives or girlfriends to finish their tours.)
Wall text explains the evolution of presenting clothes to clients and writers that, until the 1980s, were usually straightforward walk-arounds by models in the designer's salon or unadorned presentations in a rented space. The presentations became Big Production Numbers in the latter part of the 20th century, led by extravaganzas by Galliano for Dior, Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel and Alexander McQueen for Givenchy. The ever-more-dramatic clothes needed dramatic backdrops.
But the best designers do not operate in a world of smoke and mirrors. The craft of couture is evident in these nine examples, even if we don't always love the outcome. Ralph Rucci's 1998 slinky silk jersey dress may be simple, but that simplicity does not come easily. Chanel is represented by an ankle-length evening gown that also has a simple silhouette. "Martine," as the dress is named (naming is common), is an hourglass-shaped confection whose lines will never be compromised because it is underpinned by a perfectly engineered corset and petticoat. It took several of Lagerfeld's expert seamstresses 165 hours to construct, and that's not counting the application of the sequins, embroidered into white trompe l'oeil knots that cover the fabric.
Azzedine Alaia became famous in the 1980s for his form-fitting clothes. (Remember the scene in the 1995 movie Clueless in which Alicia Silverstone, in a sexy red dress, is mugged at gunpoint in a parking lot? As she is forced to lie down on the concrete, she cries, "This is an Alaia!") A later ensemble of a fitted black coat over a skirt of goat hair from 2006-2007 illustrates why he is revered for his tailoring by celebrities that have included Greta Garbo and Lady Gaga.
Celebrity has always been entwined with the fashion industry. Several decades ago, the term "red carpet" became synonymous with the clothes worn by celebrities at events such as the Academy Awards and something of a frenzied public obsession. One gallery is dedicated to a red carpet populated with seven items worn by celebrities, most from a real red-carpet occasion. That 1969 Scaasi for Streisand outfit is in this room and we of a certain age will recall the collective gasp heard round the nation's TVs when the actor climbed the stage steps, the beige lining under the black silk netting became invisible in the spotlight, and she looked naked.
Skin shows became less shocking. No one blanched when Cate Blanchett swanned onto the Oscars' red carpet in 1999 wearing Galliano's form-fitting silk knit dress with a plunging, see-through back embroidered with a hummingbird. The effect resembled a giant tattoo on her lovely skin.
Artists, too, have had an important role in popularizing fashion. The Art of the Fashion Illustrator gallery is full of sketches and photographs and more real clothes. Seeing Isaac Mizrahi's famous tartan plaid kilt dress from 1989 juxtaposed with Kenneth Paul Block's illustration for a Women's Wear Daily cover is a wonderful riff on the illusions and fantasy inherent in fashion. The dress is fun, cool and imaginative (and much copied). But wow! Block makes you want to have it. Makes you believe you have to have it because it will make you look more totally fabulous than you have ever looked.
Block, who died in 2009, was to fashion illustration what the top Parisian designers combined are to haute couture. Lucky for viewers, the show has a trove of his work so we can see the incisive lines that capture the essence of a piece of clothing or a person. He not only drew fashion, he chronicled the comings and going of fashionable people such as Jacqueline Kennedy and Babe Paley. Two drawings were done the day after Truman Capote's legendary Black and White Ball in 1966 when Capote lunched at the chic New York restaurant Lafayette with Babe Paley, Marella Agnelli and Bunny Mellon. Mizrahi said of him, "Because he drew Babe Paley and Jackie Kennedy a certain way, they became what he had envisioned."
Photography inevitably usurped illustration as the medium for visual fashion reportage. And we see that the rigid verisimilitude of photography can be mitigated with imagination and style by artists such Richard Avedon, Herb Ritts, Irving Penn, Hiro and Deborah Turberville, though sometimes they went too "artiste" for some. Turberville, for example, was championed by Vogue in the 1970s, but reviled by designers who hated the blurry focus and strange atmosphere of her prints that didn't show their work to advantage.
"Icons of Style" comes from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston whose Textiles and Fashion Arts collection is among the oldest in the United States with 45,000 pieces. It begins in 2500 B.C. and continues into the 21st century. One group of acquisitions that's featured prominently in the show is work by American designer Scaasi. He dressed the rich, famous and fashionable beginning in the 1960s. He gave a number of his designs to the museum, along with working sketches so we can see Scaasi's conception on paper accompanied by a fabric swatch and an estimate of wholesale costs that included labor next to the finished product. His clients were a galaxy of stars and he created some beautiful clothes, but I found the selection for this show not among his best. But "not among his best" is still better than what most of us have in our own closets.
My takeaway for "Icons" isn't about excess, extravagance or vanity. It's an example of artistic aspirations and dreams that sometimes become real.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.