The highly anticipated “High Style: The Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection” at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor displays masterpieces from fashion greats. From Jeanne Lanvin, Madeleine Vionnet, Elsa Schiaparelli, Yves Saint Laurent for Dior, Coco Chanel, to Charles James, it’s a must-go exhibition for fashion lovers. Exhibition runs through July 19, 2015.

If you are a fashion lover in San Francisco, chances are you already went to the “High Style” (some of my friends call it “that Charles James exhibition”) at least once or are planning to go soon. And boy, you won’t be disappointed. The exhibition, located at Legion of Honor’s Special Exhibition Galleries and Rosekrans Court displays beautiful masterpieces from 1900s to 1980s that are breathtaking in their design complexities and execution. You surely will daydream, imagining yourself wearing at least a few of those beautiful fashion creations. This great visual fashion history is on view until July 19. So if you haven’t seen it, you have to go. Don’t miss it. I insist.
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The “High Style: Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection” is the result of collaboration among The Brooklyn Museum, The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s Legion of Honor, and the Cincinnati Art Museum. Initiated in 2009, the Brooklyn Museum established the Brooklyn Museum Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The collection, consisting of 25,000 pieces from the 1900s to 1970s, including Charles James’ 250 garments archive, was then integrated into The Met’s Costume Institute.

You may recall the Brooklyn Collection exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum from May 7 to August 1, 2010. The show was curated by Jan Glier Reeder, the consulting curator at The Costume Insititute. “High Style” is a condensed version of the 2010 exhibition, also curated by Jan Reeder. It includes 60 dressed mannequins and 35 accessories from 20th century’s American and European fashion treasures. FAMSF’s Jill D’Alessandro and the Met’s Harold Koda consult for the show.

“The Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection is a national treasure whose riches range from iconic rarities of haute couture to inventive sportswear by the first American women designers,” said Jan Reeder. “In 2009, the Brooklyn Museum and the Met formed a historic, collaborative partnership to ensure the preservation and public access to these treasures.”

“These works from the Brooklyn Museum’s costume collection, arguably the greatest repository of American fashion design, present a wonderful counterbalance to our own costume collection and its emphasis on mid-century French couture,” said Colin B. Bailey, Director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “This is a unique opportunity to celebrate masterworks of both American designers and early 20th century French couturiers,” added Jill D’Alessandro, curator of costumes and textile arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

On this exhibition, you will see ensembles from French couture houses, including Christian Dior, Jeanne Lanvin, Madeleine Vionnet, and Elsa Schiaparelli. Moreover, works from American women designers in the 1930s to 1950s, such as Bonnie Cashin, Elizabeth Hawes, and Claire McCardell, and their male counterparts, including Norman Norell, Mainbocher, and Gilbert Adrian are all there to magnify your day dreaming session.

Below are some of the looks we got to enjoy during the High Style media preview on March 12. I mean, see the evidence for yourself. It is unthinkable not to see this rare exhibition!

French Couture in the Early 20th Century

Jan Reeder led us to this room full of French couture perfections. The details of each ensembles are truly amazing, and I wished I did not forget my phone that day. I could’ve taken several photos myself, which would’ve helped me tremendously in identifying many of these masterpieces afterwards. But thanks to Pinterest, I managed to do that for most. Still, there are several pieces from this room that I couldn’t identify accurately.

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Accessories Room

The shoes inside a custom-made trunk made with violin wood by Pietro Yantorny was a magnificent sight. Rita de Acosta Lydig, the famous New York socialite originally owned 150 – 300 pairs of shoes, including the ones in this trunk. She’s a woman of bold choices; she daringly wore the Callot Soeurs burgundy pants (seen on the previous room) when wearing floor-length skirts were the norm. Moreover, she was the first woman to wear a backless dress to see the opera – a bold choice back in the day!

Seeing the shoe prototypes by Steven Arpad were also a great highlight. This artist’s work would’ve been unknown had Charles James not told him to donate his prototypes to Brooklyn Museum.
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Elsa Schiaparelli

The surrealist artist that had whimsical, unusual sense of fashion was big in late 1920s to 1940s. From exposed zipper detail, custom textile print made out of seed packets, to
brightly colored insect necklace, Elsa Schiaparelli was such an iconic fashion great. Her fashion sense was realistic, not romanticized, and her works were (still are) beautiful.
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Also in this room, there were notable looks by Madeleine Vionnet and Roger Worth. I especially love Roger Worth’s zig-zag patterned dress. The colors were painted before the fabric was even woven. Even the paint “drips” on the silk tafetta fabric was intentional.
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French Couture – After World War II

The Yves St. Laurent for Christian Dior’s Trapeze collection was on display in this room. They were made when he was still 21 years old, tapped to head Dior house after Christian Dior died suddenly of heart attack. There was a great deal of uncertainty when young St. Laurent took over Dior, but he proved his talents. The Paris newspapers had the headline “St Laurent saves Paris!” when Trapeze collection was revealed.

Also on view is the black ruffled cocktail dress from Coco Chanel (with a hemline 1 ft. higher than the norm), as well as Sorelle Fontana’s strapless dress and dramatic long-sleeved bolero set. I’m sure Ava Gardner had a lot of fun playing off this dress during “The Barefoot Contessa” movie filming.
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American Designers

This room exhibits notable sportswear looks from American women designers, such as Vera Maxwell and Bonnie Cashin. Fashion from the male counterpart is also present, including a 1949 tiger-striped silk ball gown by Gilbert Adrian.

By now, you noticed the elegant paper wigs on the mannequins’ heads. Mr. Koda cheerfully informed the crowd that they are made of paper twist that was untwisted and sewn together again by Brooklyn textile designer Elizabeth DeSole. It’s truly amazing how each wigs matches the accompanying ensembles. What a wholesome experience of observing a visual masterclass of fashion.
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Charles James

And for the finale, it’s a section of the exhibition devoted to Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 1906-1978). It has 25 objects — nine ensembles, 12 sketches, and five prototype muslins that illuminate the technical mastery behind James’s highly constructed gowns.

We were immediately greeted by the most iconic Charles James’ creation “Clover Leaf” ball gown (1953). The silk satin, faille, and shantung with lace harmoniously worked together to hug a certain female body. It’s no surprise, since Mr. James chose fabrics in relation to by as a medium; shaped and formed to each garments.

The sections underneath the lace was layered with a different fabric than the rest of the outermost layer of the skirt, giving a subtle illusion of lace pieces floating on the surface. By they way, do you know the dress weighs more than 10 lbs.? And yet it’s designed so that it hangs from the hips and float comfortably. Marvelous.
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On the wall behind the iconic gown, we can see some of his sketches.
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While the “Clover Leaf” ballgown is magnificent, other Charles James creations in this exhibition are no less spectacular to behold. His techniques, drawn from mathematical, architectural, and sculptural concepts, are clearly seen from these garments. It’s really inspiring to see someone not formally trained in dress-making being able to create such masterpieces, including “La Sirene” evening dress (1939) and “Ribbon” dress (1946).
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I have to give a big shout-out to the curators who led us through the media preview tour. Jan Reeder did a great narrative while floating from one masterpiece to another. Jill D’Alessandro also did a remarkable job filling in between the lines. And of course, Met’s Harold Koda is such a great story teller.

He shared how one model felt after she put on a Charles James gown and walked in it, “It’s a lesson in beauty. It’s teaching me how to stand. It’s teaching me how to walk.”
Ah, walking in a Charles James gown…what a great daydream to have for days and months to come! Maybe it won’t be that much of a stretch that much longer; rumor has it the Charles James label is going to be revived.
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Thank you Christian Hadidjaja for the beautiful photos, and as you can see below, I had tons of fun during the media preview. Let me emphasize one last time: don’t miss out on this exhibition if you’re local. It’s only on display until July 19.
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Big congratulations to FAMSF for continuously bringing high fashion exhibitions to the Bay Area. “High Style” is a remarkable latest installation that follows past exhibitions on Vivienne Westwood, Yves St. Laurent, Balenciaga, Jean Paul Gaultier, Pulp Fashion, and Bulgari. Here’s to seeing many more fashion exhibitions in the future! I’m already anticipating next year’s Oscar de la Renta Retrospective. And I better not forget my phone next time.

Have fun; thanks for reading,

Photos by Christian Hadidjaja.

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