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Monday August 19, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Monday August 19, 2013 MYT 6:25:15 AM
by suzy menkes
British fashion designer Stella McCartney, years. at her store in Beijing in May, is also a fan of the little black dress. — AFP photo
As every woman’s favourite garment, the ‘little black dress’ has a colourful history.
THE little black dress is an iconic French invention, right?
Created nearly a century ago by Coco Chanel, emblematic of Gallic chic and worn by Edith Piaf as she sang about love and loss, the dress did make it to the United States, perhaps most notably as Audrey Hepburn’s costume in the 1961 movie Breakfast At Tiffany’s. But that dress was, of course, made by the Paris couturier Hubert de Givenchy.
So it may come as a surprise in Little Black Dress, an intriguing exhibition in Paris at the Mona Bismarck American Centre for Art & Culture (until Sept 22) to encounter first a black lace dress worn by the American designer Marc Jacobs to the 2012 Metropolitan Museum gala by the Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons and a sleek dinner dress, worn by the artist Rachel Feinstein, made by Jacobs.
Created at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in Georgia, the exhibition pits a framed Karl Lagerfeld example of the classic black Chanel dress, as worn by Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of American Vogue, against the feisty cutaway Latex dress by Norma Kamali, or even a body-revealing lace and jet-beading creation from Tom Ford.
The man behind the artistic organisation of textures, shapes and nuances of shades, all shown against sanguine red walls, is André Leon Talley. Long known as a contributing editor at American Vogue and now an editor-at-large for the Russian version of Numéro magazine, Leon Talley used his connections with high society to enrich the collection that opened in 2011 at the SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah.
And Talley has no doubts about the power of the little black dress, after years of attending haute couture shows and advising socialites like Anne Bass, a benefactor of the New York City Ballet, as well as famous names from Alicia Keys through Gwyneth Paltrow, Diana Ross, Serena and Venus Williams and Renée Zellweger.
This collection is far more than homage to past grandeur.
“In every moment, my desire was to establish an invisible dialogue or narrative between dress, showcasing variety and how women thought of the little black dress,” Talley said. He chose a Chanel coat-dress from Gloria von Thurn und Taxis and decided to face-off a Galliano slip dress and a black Fortuny column that he says, is “as modern today as it must have been when it was designed circa 1907”. That piece came as part of a donation to SCAD of the entire wardrobe of the socialite C.Z. Guest.
The lore of the little black dress is that it made its name in 1926, when an American Vogue illustration aligned Chanel’s creation with the any-colour-as-long-as-it-is-black model-T Ford car.
Since the much-married social adventuress Mona Bismarck was the first woman in the world to head a “Best Dressed” list in 1933, it seems appropriate that the exhibition is in her former Paris home on the Avenue de New York. And that the mannequins grouped in back and front positions (the better to display a subtle plunge down the spine) emulate guests at a grand party.
Talley links this rear-view focus to a moment at his high school senior prom, when the homecoming queen asked him, between dances, to powder her bared back, thus giving him a first frisson of the spine as an erotic zone.
Throughout the show there are subtle touches, as a lofty Madame Grès dress from 1977 is blown into movement by a tiny electric fan, with the back, once again, challenging the “monastic” look.
In the final room of the show, the models sit elegantly on couches in front of a gilded mirror, with just a single cascade of Oscar de la Renta’s red frills signing off with bravura the intensity of black.
Talley said he imagined a ball in Venice with the women gossiping as they waited to be asked to dance. And the donors’ names alone transport the clothes to another world: a 1962 Chanel dress from Baronne Béatrice de Rothschild; or a lace Yves Saint Laurent dress donated by the long-time front-row fixture Deeda Blair. But the show is not entirely given over to studied elegance or a world as charming and glamorous as it is definitively over.
There are hyper-modern dresses, like the American designer Prabal Gurung’s plunge-front gown, Diane Von Furstenburg’s synthetic lamé wrap dress and a Neoprene zip-front design from the SCAD graduate Alexis Asplundh.
“I think Americans take more freedom with it – with more energy put into young designers, there is a tilt towards America in the show,” says Molly Rowe, director of Creative Initiatives at SCAD.
Although one senses that Talley’s heart is in Paris haute couture, there are various modern American gowns, including classic dresses from Rodarte.
Azzedine Alaïa’s zippered short dress, metal chains swinging over a bifurcated dress from the Nicolas Ghesquière years at Balenciaga and Stella McCartney’s cutaway dress all offer fresh takes.
“The little black dress is something to rely on – to fill you with confidence and ease,” says McCartney in the text of the accompanying book, published by Rizzoli.
So is the little black dress the last haven for a conventional dresser, or an opportunity to add a jolt of imagination to a classic?
The answer in this exhibition is both. It is as though the classic pieces from Cristóbal Balenciaga or Yves Saint Laurent are still the centre of a fashion world where imagination in fabric, cut and the way the dress is worn add that extra jolt.
Miuccia Prada expresses the reality of timeless yet contemporary fashion, when she says in the book: “To me, designing a little black dress is trying to express in a simple, banal object, a great complexity about women, aesthetics, and current times.” – IHT
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