Monday, November 30, 2009

American Beauty at F.I.T.

I visited recently the "American Beauty" costume exhibition up currently at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology at 7th Avenue and 27th Street. This show explores innovative clothing construction in American fashion, and argues that the work of American designers goes beyond the casual, functional clothes that are typically thought of as "American," like denim jeans and sportswear pieces. It's up through April 10, 2010; admission is free.

I was drawn to a section of the show that focused on ornamentation. I'm like a magpie; show me something sparkly and I can't take my eyes off it. This red dress by Adrian which Joan Crawford wore in the 1937 movie The Bride Wore Red was on display; it's completely covered in bugle beads.

Also on display were some "mermaid" dresses from the Sixties by Norman Norell, the great American designer who hailed from Indiana, as did those other leaders of American fashion, Halston and Bill Blass. One dress was red and one was salmon; I couldn't take photos of those dresses, but found these photos of similar Norell mermaid dresses on the website of Decades, the renowned store in L.A. which sells vintage couture. Visit the Decades blog here and see what treasures can be yours.

Norell's mermaid dresses, in different styles and designs, were covered in hand-stitched sequins which were sewn on twice so they would lie flat and not catch on one another. Sleek and chic to show off a trim American figure, the mermaids' clean lines almost evoke the simplicity of a scuba-diving suit.

The opulent fabric on a simple silhouette is glamorous and nonchalant at the same time. It's sexy too, as the sequins glimmer and shine with the body's movements. A turtle neck shape or a tee shirt shape layered with sequins in a delicious, rich, saturated color is elegant and luxe – not complicated or tricky or fussy. Just zip it up and you're dressed. No need for any jewelry; the dress itself is like one big jewel. "I simply take the most straightforward approach . . . without any extra, fancy trimmings. I don't like over-designed anything," said Norman Norell in 1952. That to me truly is American Beauty.

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