Sunday, December 20, 2015

High Style represents the apotheosis of the Cincinnati Art Museum

     The curatorial and design staff of the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM) has historically put on special exhibits that are the equal of those at institutions with bigger names or in bigger cities.  High Style: Twentieth-Century Masterworks from the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection is the latest case in point.  As the curators point out, there are a number of similarities between the Brooklyn Museum’s approach to clothing and that of the CAM. Where CAM has it over other museums (and I am thinking of Indianapolis) is in the physical staging—sets, props, and lighting—of a special exhibit.  Each exhibit is a unique production and they’re invariably gorgeous, witty, and become artworks in themselves.  They’re on a par with the Metropolitan Museum of Art so this makes complete sense for this to be here because Brooklyn’s clothing collection is now housed at the Met.  

Worth Designs
     The exhibit begins in the late 19th century with Jean Philippe Worth (1856 – 1926), who was the first couturier to market his haute couture – finest sewing – to the rich in Paris.  What may have seemed like an eccentric affectation was the first step in turning a traditional medium into a new artistic expression. 
The 20s
Many of the great European names of the 1920s and 1930s are represented with iconic pieces such as Jeanne Lanvin, J. Suzanne Talbot, Coco Chanel, and Jean Patou.  

Schiaparelli's Day Dress
     The next generation of European big names from the 1940s and 1950s show up in works by Spaniard Cristobal Balenciaga, Frenchman Hubert de Givenchy and, of course, Christian Dior.  My favorite from this group, however, was Italian-Frenchwoman Elsa Schiaparelli’s prominently and fully back zippered day dress.  It could walk runways around the world right now.  

Arpad's Shoe Design
     Where things get interesting is in its examination of two overlooked accessory designers.  Steven Arpad’s wild, one-of-a-kind shoes that are both high heeled and platform heeled were built in the 1930s, but they look like something a

Sally Victor's Millinery Works
Medieval queen or a disco diva could have worn.  Then there’s American milliner Sally Victor, whose stunningly elegant hats defined their era (1930s through the 1960s).  As Elaine Stritch’s Joanne sang in Company (1970), “Does anyone still wear a hat?” and that may have been the reason behind Victor’s unfairly faded renown.


     Though historically the focus has been on Europe, Americans created their own spotlight in the 1940s and 1950s with the emergence of sportswear.  It was mainly female designers such as Vera Maxwell, Carolyn Schnurer, and Claire McCardell who did this while working in a patriarchal industry more interested in commercial product than artistic vision.  Then everything stops in its track and an overlooked legend comes to life.

Charles James' Clover Leaf Ball Gown
     American Charles James (1906 – 1978) earned Dior’s greatest respect.  Where Dior was about impeccable cut like Armani, James was a precursor to Versace.  Dior was Neo-Classical in his formality, while James was Baroque in his cornucopia.  How heavy were these clothes?  Katharine said that they were no more restrictive than a girdle would have
Cecil Beaton's Vogue Photograph in James' Gowns
been.  The dresses momentarily stop a viewer’s breath and when critics talk about architecture in clothes, this could be the jumping off point. They seem to float and refer to 18th century Versailles and the 19th century bustle; one even has a bustier.  Neil’s photographs capture their look, but the garments have to be seen to be believed.  The CAM supplements the background information with excellent computerized graphics showing the construction of these garments.  I’ve only seen this done previously with time-lapse photography of skyscrapers being constructed.

Halston and Scaasi
     My Mom’s favorite dress was Halston’s 1975 caftan, which refers back to the 1920s.  Betsy was taken with Arnold Scaasi’s 1983 evening ensemble that looks like a flowerbed. 
Adrian's "The Tigress"
The final piece is movie designer Gilbert Adrian’s 1947 ‘The Tigress.’  It displays the timelessness of clothing because the pattern looks contemporary, but exists in its own era because the lines of the silhouette were influenced by, but are more relaxed than, Dior.  

     Where the CAM really takes off and where Cincinnatians and Northern Kentuckians need to travel to Eden Park is that except for a $4 parking charge, admission is FREE.  

High Style runs through January 24, 2016.

No comments: