Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Oscar de la Renta’s Blue Velvet Gown - Museum of Fine Arts Houston - Essay


"..ill-fitting garments are all it takes for me to call up Diana Vreeland’s pronouncement that fashion must be intoxicating release from the world’s banality."


Oscar de la Renta’s Blue Velvet Gown - Museum of Fine Arts Houston


Unseemly pantie lines visible through ill-fitting garments are all it takes for me to call up Diana Vreeland’s pronouncement that fashion must be intoxicating release from the world’s banality.

Let this serve as a reminder that Museum of Fine Arts, Houston offers a petite reprieve from the un-tailored. Wandering through the exhibition I came upon de la Renta’s blue velvet evening gown with beaded cuffs. Clenched at the waist with a sleek columnar silhouette, the gown’s open back is draped with virtuosic velvety folds. Incomparable!

To compliment the dress, André Leon Talley and co-curator Cindi Strauss placed it in front of a 1750s black lacquer Coromandel screen inlaid with mother of pearl, and this positioning of dark velvet near black lacquer under spot lights is so visually powerful I said a prayer of thanks to Cherie and Jim Flores, Mrs. Wyatt and the Kinder Foundation. The romantic effect of Coromandel screens was not lost on Chanel who incorporated screens into the décor of her Rue Cambon apartment, there are 1930s photographs of Chanel in glamorous gowns near her screens.

Find the velvet gown in the second gallery of The Glamour and Romance of Oscar de la Renta through January 28, 2018. The show’s nearly 70 ensembles were chosen to thematically represent sources of inspiration such as Spain, and his garden, on de la Renta’s designs. You can expect pietistic convulsing with cell phone photography over dresses worn by Beyoncé, and Taylor Swift, but how fascinating to see garments designed for prominent Houston women, and the beaded gown Mrs. Laura Bush wore at a state dinner (Mrs. Kennedy, Ford, Reagan, Clinton and Obama wore de la Renta.)

It takes a compelling woman to pull off the ruffled piece made for Mica Ertegun. Constructed to shimmy, this commanding garment is a distant prototype to Alexander McQueen’s ruffled organza gown which bounced on Kate Moss (2006) when her image was projected onto the catwalk as a newfangled hologram. Mica’s red ruffles are precisely what Talley had in mind when he told the media, “maximum embellishment, maximum ornamentation, these women want to impress.” I’m recalling Jacqueline de Ribes’ assertion that "elegance is the art of being astonishing.”

Now Mica is inordinately interesting. First and foremost, she makes philanthropic disbursements of ungodly amounts of money. After escaping Romania with her first husband, the proletariat obligingly retained their assets, she modeled in Paris, farmed in Canada, and married Atlantic Records mogul Ahmet Ertegun who had the sense to record Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say?” (1959), as well as Aretha and Professor Longhair, and whose wheeling-dealing helped catapult the Stones and Led Zeppelin into the ether. Try to imagine hosting Jagger’s birthday party at the St Regis with the Count Basie orchestra and Muddy Waters performing, and that freak Warhol in attendance, or, intimate dinners with Jackie Onassis. Keith Richards and Kenneth Noland were among Mica’s interior design clients. A few weeks ago I completed a class on the history of the Ottoman Empire in which we tracked each Sultan’s reign, so I’m interested in the fact that Ahmet Ertegun’s father, Mehmet, worked for the last Ottoman Sultan before becoming Kemal Ataturk’s legal counselor, after which he served as ambassador to France, the Court of St. James, and the United States during FDR’s administration.




To be sure viewers understand the influence of Spain on certain de la Renta designs, the museum displayed nearby 19th century Spanish black lace mantillas from its permanent collection. De la Renta was 19 when he went to Madrid to study art, and was hired by Spanish couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga to sketch designs for prospective clients. Just as his boss Balenciaga drew inspiration from Goya’s portrait of the mantilla wearing Duchess of Alba, ole deaf Goya lusted after Alba, de la Renta’s fastidious treatment of embroidery, glittery bead and sequin embellishments, silk tassels and passementerie borrows from Spanish court dress, toreadors’ boleros, and flamenco dancers.

The look on the face of one of his handlers suggested I broke protocol when I chatted with Alex Bolen, CEO of de la Renta’s company, married to de la Renta’s step daughter Eliza. A gracious man, Bolen told me about a family trip to trace de la Renta’s path through Spain, beginning in Santiago de Compostela then heading south to Granada. Sources of influence ranged “from high to low,” palaces to peasants, Bolen said, they visited Zurbaran paintings of religious figures and sites where “gypsies sang in caves at night."

The family could not have failed to notice the Spanish landscape. Many will recall the Vogue fashion spread in which actress Penelope Cruz modeled alongside a hot matador, photographed in Spain by Annie Leibovitz. The actress's black de la Renta gown was trimmed with sumptuous golden earth toned embroidery, which replicates the tones in the surrounding landscape and dusty stone façade. If you drive through the Extremadura region of central Spain, where I got hopelessly lost, you can see those same earth tones in vineyards and olive groves.

In proximity to the mantillas is the museum’s painting of Spain’s Austrian born Queen Margaret by Juan Pantoja de la Cruz (1605), which typifies the manner in which fashion exhibitions use fine and decorative arts as backdrops to add context to the displayed garments, for viewer edification. Diana Vreeland hung paintings by Goya, Velazquez and Picasso at the Metropolitan’s 1973 Balenciaga exhibition. When the Met’s Costume Institute’s Andrew Bolton wanted to educate viewers about the impact of the punk aesthetic on high fashion in Punk: Chaos to Couture (2013), he showed images of the toilet at CBGB’s and blasted music by the Ramones.

Possibilities for scholarly investigations linked to fashion are infinitely rich, and this educational component shoots down fussy disapproval of fashion exhibitions as frivolous, elitist baloney. Consider the circa 1755 silk dress with pronounced back pleats displayed at Palais Galliera in Paris. Flavored with French Rococo aesthetic, dresses such as this were worn during Louis XV’s reign, and appear in Watteau’s paintings. The elegant dress channels political and cultural history surrounding the Ancien Régime, including influential mistresses, hootchie-kootchie man gifted the town of Sevres to de Pompadour, she patronized Boucher and Voltaire.

In our post-literary world, it’s encouraging to think many returned to Proust after that same museum exhibited the clothes of Élisabeth, Countess Greffulhe, upon whom Proust based his Duchess of Guermantes. I’m pulling into memory Norman Mailer’s regret that he was entering an age in which few people were left alive who had read all of Remembrance of Things Past. On the topic of our “illiteracy,” Gore Vidal was at his bitchiest.

So it’s hardly misdirected to emphasize the educational. Surrealistic flourishes in Elsa Schiparelli’s designs might inspire a study of Dali, the two collaborated, and Paul Poiret’s gowns might direct one to Peggy Guggenheim’s art patronage, Ernst or Tanquy, perhaps to Breton’s poetry. Easy to visualize Guggenheim with turban and two-foot long cigarette holder camel-walking in her Poiret gown, looking as if she just summoned the palace eunuch. I personally experienced the educational benefit of a Worth dress displayed to contextualize Winterhalter’s portraits of Empress Eugénie (Madame Bonaparte patronized Worth) in MFAH’s 2016 Franz Winterhalter portrait exhibition. The Worth gown inspired my investigation of Eugénie’s furniture in the Louvre, and calibrated my imagination to the many American women who ordered their wardrobes from Worth, which oddly compelled me to re-read Edith Wharton’s description of the Beaufort’s ballroom.


I thank Julia Reed for her story about downing Pimm’s Royale at the Ritz with André Leon Talley. That moment with Talley led the booze savvy Reed to appreciate the added ingredients of mint and brandied cherry in a Pimm’s Cup, traditionally mixed with orange and cucumber, and made me ravenous for a Pimm’s at Arnaud’s or the Absinthe House. Enjoyable to read about Talley’s early fashion career in Warholian biographical material, Talley inhabited Vogue, Women’s Wear Daily, and W mag, and to pull up images of the younger Talley, photographed with Yves Saint Laurent for instance. Oscar de la Renta designed his bed, Talley told Maureen Dowd in 2016. So, imagine how thrilled I was to stand two feet from Talley while he conducted a live interview with a TV journalist who actually had an equipment-operating assistant. Lights glaring, not long into the thing, Talley threw out a reference to Proust which it seems eluded his interviewer.

“Mrs. Vreeland put him on the map, started his career,” by this Talley meant Vreeland persuaded de la Renta to abandon Paris for New York, out from under the shadow of Parisian haute couturiers, de la Renta had a better chance of becoming big. To New York he came, in 1963, to design for Elizabeth Arden, which ultimately led him to his own company. Vreeland had just departed Harper’s Bazaar to become editor-in-chief of Vogue. She championed de la Renta.

When Talley called Vreeland a “great romanticist,” he was referring to her savage obsession with beauty, often expressed in an exaggerated, fantastical style, today her taste is celebrated as brilliant and canonical. Pythia Diana turned designers, photographers and models, such as the hauntingly exquisite Verushka, into the next big deal. This is the woman who put Bacall on the cover of Harper’s in the 40s and featured the shocking mini skirt in Vogue in the 60s. In 1993 Amy Fine Collins wrote tellingly that Vreeland was “driven by a wanton passion for beauty.”

Memory to share: I’m part of a small group being given a tour of the Met’s Costume Institute by then associate curator Harold Koda. It’s 1993. “Please sir,” my hick accent interrupts Koda, “would you please permit me to see Ms. Vreeland’s office?” Koda opened the door and I stepped in to see Diana’s red walls.

The fashion exhibitions organized by Vreeland for the Met’s Costume Institute, Saint Laurent was another, changed our thinking. She is credited with demonstrating that fashion is art, designers are artists, and anyone who doubts this needs to closely inspect Alexander McQueen’s manipulation of embroidery. Years after Vreeland’s death, the popularity of fashion exhibitions culminated in block buster lines and record breaking attendance for the Met’s Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty.

Guess what. Tax deductions augmented the rise of fashion exhibitions. Judith Thurman wrote in a 2014 "New Yorker" article about designer Charles James, (Mrs. de Menil was a client), that the IRS sanctioned fashion as art in the fifties. According to Thurman, James persuaded Millicent Rogers to donate twenty-four of her James gowns to the Brooklyn Museum, and Rogers’ bequest set a precedent for treating couture as art - and as a tax deduction. Past Met Director Thomas Hoving linked the growth of the Costume Institute to tax deductible donations.

De la Renta’s designs were profoundly influenced by his garden. According to Talley, de la Renta believed work in his garden was never complete. Familiar with tropical gardens during his Dominican Republic childhood, the designer created a formal garden at his Connecticut home and you would have to be comatose to be unaware of its impact on his work, in the event you’re clueless, the museum projects dizzying garden images on the gallery wall.

That garden has balls. Sculpted boxwoods, tile and brick pathways, and a long pear tree lined alley designed in the tradition of Le Nôtre’s extended vistas. The garden’s gravy on the biscuit is a statue of Diana the Huntress, with fewer stags, but spiritually related to the Diana statue at the Palace of Fontainbleau, a garden so bloody romantic one gets the point of Diane de Poitiers seducing boy King Henry. Curatorial notes indicate that floral motifs in the wedding dresses de la Renta designed for Amal Clooney and for his step daughter Eliza Bolen, whom we had the pleasure to meet, were inspired by his garden.

It seems a garden can alter sensibilities and emotions. Louis XIV became unhinged over the garden his financial advisor Nicolas Fouquet created at palatial Veau-le-Vicomte. So sumptuous were Fouquet’s chateau and grounds, the Sun King became convinced his minister’s wealth surpassed his, so he confiscated all, art and sculptures, and imprisoned Fouquet. Designer Carolyne Roehm on the other hand felt transported when she and de la Renta visited Kyoto’s Moss gardens, an “unforgettable” experience which caused Roehm to realize she had never truly known the color green, Roehm said in a tribute to de la Renta after his death. In the footsteps of her mentor Roehm crafted her own very grand garden at her Connecticut home, images of which are extraordinary.




Wonder what de la Renta and Roehm would have thought about Louis XIV’s foppish red high heels. The two started out as boss and assistant in the seventies, today they are equally famous. Roehm’s books on interiors and gardens which provide aesthetic guidance for the masses, I read everything she writes, got her labeled Oprah’s design guru. Roehm re-entered de la Renta’s design team during a particularly significant time in his career, when he created the haute couture collections for the fashion house of Pierre Balmain. If de la Renta left Parisian haute couture in 1962, he returned to it as Creative Director of Balmain (1992-2002), a rare American running a French house.

Prickly rules govern haute couture, to distinguish it from couture. Garments must be finished by hand, and custom ordered, the haute couturier must employ a minimum of twenty workers, and must present 25 ensembles each winter and each spring. Multiple fittings are required. So on. With French government bureaucrats policing.

Back to the blue velvet gown. De la Renta created it in 1994 while in the haute world of Balmain. The gown entered the museum’s permanent collection after the death of its owner. I did not know the blue velvet gown’s owner, Sandra di Portanova, but I often admired her pictures in magazines. One night I stood near her at a thing. Gawd, could she wear jewels, that gorgeous bosom with perfect décolletage exploited jewels. How sad that Mrs. Di Portanova died so young, she was about the same age as my Donnie.

Images - 1 Oscar de la Renta,
Custom Evening Ensemble, 2001, silk taffeta and silk satin, courtesy of Oscar de la Renta Archive (worn by Mica Ertegun to an event celebrating her 40th wedding anniversary to Ahmet Ertegun, 2001). © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

2 Oscar de la Renta, Evening Dress, spring 2005, silk tulle and silk taffeta appliqué, the Collection of Annette de la Renta (worn by Annette de la Renta at the Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008). © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

3 (Left) Oscar de la Renta, Custom Evening Coat, 2012, silk taffeta, the Collection of Annette de la Renta (worn by Annette de la Renta at the Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012). © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

(Right) Oscar de la Renta, Evening Dress, fall 1996, silk crepe with bead and sequin embroidery, the Collection of Annette de la Renta; Evening Cape, fall/winter 1993–94, silk satin, the Collection of Annette de la Renta. © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

4 Oscar de la Renta for Pierre Balmain, Evening Dress, fall/winter 1999–2000, silk velvet, silk embroidery, and silk appliqué. © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. (Copied from Harper’s website.)




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