Wednesday, January 22, 2003

All that glitters - Indianapolis Museum of Art - January 22, 2003


* Pictured - An evening suit, designed by Coco Chanel, part of the "All that Glitters" exhibit at the IMA

* A personal aside - My mother was a buyer at L.S. Ayres during her time there from 1947 to 1968. Her expertise and experience have enabled and fed my fashion and fabric brain.

Currently on exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, All that Glitters consists of 20 primo examples of classic couture women's evening wear from the IMA's collection of over 700 pieces. Spanning the 1950s through the '80s, these glamorous garments are encrusted with hand-applied sequins and beads. They represent an era when dressing up was the norm for an urban evening. Plum colored walls create a sumptuous backdrop for these extraordinary 20th century garments in the third floor gallery dedicated to textiles. Designers represented are Coco Chanel, Guy Laroche, Givenchy, Fontana and Indiana"s own couturier trio Bill Blass, Halston and Norman Norell. Terrific examples of these designers' looks go hand-in-hand with the glitter of their meticulous, hand-embellished ornamentation.

Beautiful examples of Halston's work, the best represented of the group, size up style trends, quality and his distinctive look. Cute on the right person, a Pinto orange tank dress saturated with orange beads and a solid bugle-beaded tie belt from 1980 is a bit on the dramatic side. His bubble look jacket, made from a single piece of fabric, gathered at the shoulders, is masterfully constructed. More typical is a timeless 1980s red, long-sleeved cardigan jacket and pants, beaded in the same red with a unique, swirly pattern on synthetic fabric. It's topped off by a gorgeous double-layered silk chiffon halter top with a wrap-around waist sash. Though Halston's bead work was done in India from 1973 on, these two outfits represent the tedious art of beading by hand, which has mostly been replaced by machine beading.

You only have to think leisure suits to know that the 1970s and '80s weren't an elegant time in fashion history. Dressing up was fizzling out and a dated pink and black diamond patterned Givenchy top from 1985 shows it. This piece has a generic Bill Cosby sweater-trend look as opposed to the revered Hepburn style for which Givenchy is best remembered.

Though simple and tailored, the single Blass piece, a pink and purple painted and studded python jacket, would have required the right wearer to carry it off as elegantly as it was made.

A graceful, late 1950s strapless Givenchy ball gown is more to the point. The salmon pink silk shantung skirt is dreamily exquisite and need only be accompanied by Prince Charming. It's a typically cultivated ball gown of the day with a gathered skirt, fitted and embellished bodice, a little lowered waistband and horsehair reinforced skirt. Today, women don"t have the opportunity to buy dresses like this, let alone have a place to wear them. This dress would have been pricey for the day, though probably not a one-of-a-kind.

Hopefully, only one was made of the over-the-top Fontana early 1950s ball gown of silk velvet trimmed in ermine. It's no wonder that Fontana became known for theatrical clothes, having produced such an outlandish gown. It is more costume than evening attire. In extreme contrast is a Fontana silk lace and organza ball gown from the same period. All kinds of beads - scallops, metal, glass - sprinkle through the four panels of bias cut fabric.

The two Chanel offerings in the exhibit are by far the most timeless and refined. A silver and gold three-piece suit shows Coco Chanel's classic tailoring and unprecedented style. Francois Lesage, who did bead work for couturiers, should get full credit for a green Chanel suit on exhibit. A straight, ankle-length skirt falls below a simple hip-length jacket with a small mandarin collar - both meticulously adorned with green bugle beads. It is a gorgeous masterpiece. Lesage, who worked with all the best designers, took over an embroidery workshop in 1949 that was historically synonymous with luxury, having created for the likes of Napoleon III.

Most all of the beaded pieces displayed are executed on lightweight silk chiffon. Most notable is a sarong style dress by Halston from 1973 with a fish tail back. The silk organza is so heavily ornamented with crowded mirror, glass and other beads, you wonder how the raglan sleeves could hold under their weight. It appears to be remarkably heavy - though hardly a sacrifice for the lucky wearer of this work of art. This exhibit is a real treat, superbly exemplifying clothes as a complex artform. Fashion is an elaborate mix of collaborators, fabrics, designers, colors and trends all coming together - for a party dress. Through May 4; 317-923-1331.

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