Oscar de la Renta’s Intimate, Global Couture

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The de Young’s Oscar de la Renta Retrospective, which runs until May 30th, is a celebration of the late designer’s life and extensive contributions to the world of women’s fashion. Vivid pink banners (a hue of which de la Renta himself would’ve approved) advertising the exhibit dot the streets of San Francisco like spring blossoms.

It would seem that the publicity is paying off — on a Thursday afternoon, the exhibit was crowded and noisy with admirers. de la Renta’s masterpieces were draped on mannequins and complemented by furniture and paintings from the museum’s own collections. The exhibit followed a chronological and thematic trajectory, starting with the designer’s early work, tracing his European- and Asian-inspired creations, sampling his daywear and eveningwear collections, and ending with the pièce de résistance: his ball gowns and red carpet ensembles.

The young designer from the Dominican Republic would put American couture on the map, would dress movie stars and First Ladies, would leave behind a legacy of chameleonic adaptability and artistic daring.

From the beginning, de la Renta flirted with lush coloring and innovative silhouettes. He gained international recognition during the 1973 “Battle of Versailles,” where five American designers, de la Renta among them, showed their creations alongside their French counterparts in Paris. Initially, Europe’s old-guard fashion houses expected little from the Americans — the Yankees were too green — but soon found themselves scrambling to recover a stolen show. Before a stunned crowd, a diverse cast of models (eight African-American models — a record for the time) twirled and showed off the soft hues and pliant folds of de la Renta’s crêpe-de-chine dresses. A clip of their performance played on loop in the dim exhibit hall while crowds moved past the gowns, now immobile on their mannequins.

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de la Renta made the trans-Atlantic leap in 1993, becoming the first Dominican to design for a French couture house, Balmain. As de la Renta made inroads in the European fashion scene, his designs began to take cues from Spanish, French, and Russian traditions. From Spain, he borrowed the extravagant ruffles of a flamenco dancer’s dress and the bold machismo of a matador’s jacket; from France, and his time as a designer for the House of Balmain, he made his own variations on floral prints and pinstripes; his Russian-inspired pieces are lined with sable tails and fur.

As I moved away from a sable-laden coat, I noticed that another woman was progressing through the exhibit at the same pace as me — only, she stopped at every pedestal to snap a photo of the clothing on display. With increasing wonderment, I watched as she crammed the entirety of the retrospective into her camera roll. I wondered what she would do with those photos later — ogle their designs? Attempt similar ensembles the next time she went shopping for clothes? Or somehow feel richer for owning images of clothing, even if their tangible forms were beyond her (and anyone’s, really) reach?

I ricocheted from caftan to pantsuit to ballgown and found myself wondering how it’d feel to wear each design. An exhibition of clothing encourages this kind of empathy in a way that traditional exhibits of paintings or sculpture would be hard-pressed to do. Maybe it’s that consumption as a reaction to clothing is hard-wired into our minds — we can’t help but view a clothing item and wonder at the sensation of its fabric on our skin or imagine what it must be like to own the thing. Certain paintings or photographs can leave a viewer completely groundless. But clothing, even at its most impractical, is anchored by its intimate association with the human form. So creations as exquisite as de la Renta’s inspire in viewers a hunger for ownership, a desire to claim each stitch as their own, to fill the draped spaces with their own bodies. I don’t think I was alone in thinking this — as I moved through the exhibit, I heard occasional exclamations of “I want that dress/coat/cloak!”

More than paintings, which a museum might credit as belonging to so-and-so’s private collection out of deference, clothing garners gravitas from its wearers. The retrospective’s red carpet exhibit was studded with the names of A-listers and musicians: Nicki Minaj, Taylor Swift, Sarah Jessica Parker, Amy Adams. The measure of de la Renta’s fame, it appeared, came in large part from the notability of his clients (when you’re the go-to couturier of First Ladies and pop musicians alike, you’ve made it big). de la Renta’s versatility was evident in his predilection for highly-decorated, rhinestone-studded evening gowns and, equally, the more mute pieces he designed for Laura Bush and Nancy Reagan.

At the exhibit’s end, surrounded by the fruits of one man’s creative life, I couldn’t help but feel inspired. A subset of de la Renta’s work fills half a dozen rooms and holds a place of honor in the world of international couture. Call it vanity, but I felt that an artist could want nothing more than to see her collected works put on display. (I’m sure some prolific author has visited a library for the satisfaction of seeing an entire shelf of spines bearing her name.)

In the rarefied world of haute couture, beautiful dresses and coats — pieces to outlast their creator — concretize de la Renta’s legacy.

In the dim spaces of the museum hall, they grant his admirers a bit of borrowed glamor in their daydreams.

Images courtesy of the deYoung and KQED.

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