Published: September 7, 2010
An unusual sort of glamour has appeared in this old New England mill town with the opening of the exhibition “High Style: Betsy Bloomingdale and the Haute Couture” at the American Textile History Museum.
Forty-one creations by such masters as Hubert de Givenchy, Oscar de la Renta, Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, Marc Bohan for Dior, James Galanos, Yves Saint Laurent, Gianfranco Ferré for Dior, André Courrèges and Adolfo Sardiña are on view in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the textile museum. It is a heady celebration of the genius of the couturier and his needle, tailoring and fit, the sweep and fold of exquisite textures.
Finally, it is a look at an already vanished lifestyle in which one wore haute couture as a matter of course.
Betsy Bloomingdale, a fixture on the International Best Dressed List and now in the Best Dressed Hall of Fame, embraced French haute couture in 1961 when on a visit to Paris. It was there that she visited the salon of Pierre Balmain and made her first haute couture acquisition. From that day forward and for more than 35 years, she was a regular in the ateliers of Avenue Montaigne, known in the Eighteenth Century as allée des veuves (widows’ alley) and in the Twentieth Century as the center of high fashion.
In the foreword to the show catalog, Bloomingdale writes that “&n the earlier days you sat quietly on a little chair at 3 pm. It was all very quiet and if you saw something you liked, you would ask to see it after the show.” All very elegant and understated.
On the occasions when she was unable to attend the Paris shows, favored designers would send her their sketches (croquis) of a particular garment, along with a fabric swatch.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Betsy Bloomingdale has lived there much of her life, all the while a world traveler. She sits on the boards of a number of charitable organizations and is a founding donor to the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) of Los Angeles, which organized “High Style: Betsy Bloomingdale and the Haute Couture.” Over the past 33 years, she has given some 125 items of haute couture to the institute, which has served to solidify the viability of that organization. She has also donated her impressive collection of croquis. Her 11 closets remain well stocked, however.
Bloomingdale credits her late husband, Alfred Bloomingdale, grandson of the founders of the department stores that bear his name, with her introduction to haute couture. His business interests (he bought Diner’s Club, the first credit card company, from its founder and expanded it to international success) took him to the fashion houses of Paris and he discovered that it made good business sense for his wife to be dressed by the Paris couturiers. As a self-described clotheshorse, with an innate sense of style, she selected and wore their creations beautifully.
Bloomingdale’s collection is heavy on glorious pieces from Christian Dior, particularly those by Marc Bohan, renowned for the romantic feminine qualities of his clothing that suit her so well.
A silk and linen evening gown created by Bohan for Dior’s 1963 spring/summer collection is splendid, with hand applied three-dimensional flowers whose petals were made from silk organza. Catalog notes indicate that the dress has retained its original freshness over 45 years. Bloomingdale wore it with made-to-match Roger Vivier pumps.
The fabric of a yellow silk gazar evening dress, also by Bohan for Dior, seems to flow beautifully about the wearer’s body. It does, but only because of deceptively careful draping and meticulous stitching to keep the folds in place. It is on view with its croqui and a swatch of fabric.
A stunning red silk crepe evening gown by Gianfranco Ferré for Dior is from Ferré’s first collection for the house in the winter of 1989‱990. It is made with an overlong trailing red silk organza stole that would float away on the slightest breeze were it not held by large flowers, also of red silk organza, made individually petal by petal and embossed. The dress is also on view together with the original croqui and a fabric swatch.
An evening dress by Yves Saint Laurent from the autumn/winter collection of 1979‱980 was made with a black silk velvet top above a rounded yellow silk satin skirt, and its ballerina aspect is a nod to the couturier’s homage to Diaghilev and Picasso that season.
It resonates with an evening gown by Bohan for Dior that is made with black silk velvet and yellow silk faille.
Betsy Bloomingdale and others like her who were dressed by the masters, dressed for lunch, for tea, for cocktails, for dinner and for balls, necessitating multiple changes each day. She was a reliable presence at the spring and fall fashion shows until 1996 when she made her last purchase, a Christian Dior by Gianfranco Ferré.
She discontinued her couture pilgrimages as the wearing of haute couture became less haute and much more a rock star media event. Today’s relaxed lifestyles have changed all that, and high-quality ready-to-wear clothing has replaced haute couture in many closets, including hers.
Early on, Bloomingdale was aware of the importance of her collection in the story of couture and considered giving her clothes to a museum. She saw FIDM as an appropriate repository for her gowns and other garments where they will be studied and appreciated. The co-curators of the exhibit, Kevin L. Jones and Christina M. Johnson, who worked for three years to put it together, report that her wardrobe was in exceptional order when it came to the institute.
Each garment bore a tag indicating where she wore it, how she wore it and the accessories she wore with it. For example, the tag for a red one-shouldered Dior gown from the 1985 season specifies, “State dinner, Washington, D.C./Metropolitan Museum NYC/Don’t zip or hook inner zipper. Zip a little way, snap bow on first, do outer zipper, diamond pin to hold closed.”
The deceptively easy flow of the gowns on view belies their careful construction. Once a design, the color and fabric are selected by the client, a muslin toile is made on a dress form created to replicate the client’s exact measurements. The client is fitted at least three times and adjustments are made before the toile is unstitched to become the pattern used to cut the final fabric. The styling and the workmanship are superb †as they should be: a hand done, beautifully finished garment requires at least 100 hours to make; an elaborate evening gown consumes 800 to 1,000 hours.
The exhibition is an explication of haute couture itself. The term is an appellation contrôlée, or trademark, and describes the highest quality dressmaking and in France is protected legally, used only by those fashion houses who have met the strict criteria set by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, which is part of the French Ministry of Industry. Those standards include the creation of made-to-order clothing with several private custom fittings, the existence of a Paris atelier with at least 20 employees and twice yearly presentations of a collection of at least 25 ensembles. Since every dress requires the skills of dozens of hands, the 20-person minimum is probably the easiest standard to meet.
The concept of haute couture is ageless, but the trademarked name achieved officialdom during the Occupation in World War II when couturier Lucien Lelong as president of the Chambre Syndicale negotiated with the Nazis to permit haute couture to remain in Paris after Hitler expressed his intention to relocate it to Berlin or Vienna. At the time, the thwarted relocation spared some 12,000 artisans their jobs.
“High Style: Betsy Bloomingdale and the Haute Couture” co-curators Jones and Johnson based their selections on Bloomingdale’s own style, the native Los Angeleno who embraced haute couture and incorporated it into her way of life. Jones points out that much of Bloomingdale’s daywear is far removed from the over-the-top couture displayed today. Tasteful and classic, the clothing is ageless. The curators mixed her sumptuous evening wear with elegant day dress and filled out the picture with photographs of Bloomingdale wearing the garments and others of models modeling them.
While Bloomingdale’s clothes were, according to Johnson and Jones, worn about five times over a decade, they generated a trickle-down effect. Seen first in the Paris salons and worn with panache at public events, items of haute couture were copied endlessly, turning up on women around the world for many seasons.
“High Style: Betsy Bloomingdale and the Haute Couture” remains on view at the American Textile History Museum through January 2. The museum is at 491 Dutton Street. For information, 978-441-0400 or www.athm.org .
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