This past weekend I visited the High Style exhibit at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. The Legion of Honor is a beautiful museum located in the Lands End park. Its entrance was already breathtaking. There were even couples taking engagement and wedding photos between the columns. The exhibit is a collection of garments from the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection by significant designers from the last 100 years; It was absolutely beautiful! The exhibit had six main sections: couture in the early 1900s, the work of Elsa Schiaparelli, couture after WWII, ready-to-wear after the war by top male and female designers of the time, and the work of Charles James.
The exhibit started breathtakingly with a room dedicated to early couture. Couture in the most literal sense means “finest sewing” and couture garments during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are considered the pinnacle of fashion because they were custom made with innovative techniques and the most luxurious fabrics. The first couture house was the House of Worth created by Charles Frederick Worth and operated from 1858 to 1956. Worth started as the dressmaker to Empress Eugénie in the French court of Emperor Napoleon III. While the current House of Worth only produces perfumes, Charles Worth is regarded as the “first courtier” or the “father of haute couture”.
The next room focused on the work of Elsa Schiaparelli and other notable designers between the two world wars. This era was characterized by a fierce rivalry between Elsa Schiaparelli and “Coco” Chanel. There were beautiful dresses and necklaces designed by Schiaparelli with obvious influence by Surrealists like her collaborators Salvador Dalí and Jean Cocteau. One of the featured garments was this beautiful Schiaparelli jacket with fine embroidery by the House of Lesage. Her lifelong passion for astronomy was featured in this evening jacket with embroidered constellations and the astrological symbols. Unfortunately, Schiaparelli did not adapt to the changes in fashion following World War II and her couture house closed in 1954.
The last room focused on the work of Charles James. I had never heard of James before visiting the museum last weekend but I found his work breathtaking. He wasn’t actually a trained dressmaker and took more of an architectural approach to fashion. He is now known as the first American couturier and Dior even credited him for inspiring the New Look. Charles James experimented with clothing in many ways and pioneered various techniques for manipulating fabrics like spiral seams and highly sculpted ball gowns. "He was an artist whose medium was clothes" says Harold Koda of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of New York. The exhibit even had nice 3D renderings of the iconic items by James and exposed the math behind the creation of the dresses.
One of my favorite parts of the exhibit was not the clothing (though I was obviously a huge fan), but the interactions between attendees. There were mothers and daughters going through the exhibit together and I could hear the mother trying to explain the significance of the 70s to their daughter or grandmothers trying to describe the 40s. There were even some elderly women that just gasped when they saw some of the garments as they evoked memories of the period. Fashion represents the culture of an era so well and I loved how involved all the attendees were - way more involved than they would’ve been with paintings or photographs of those decades, I’m sure.
I highly recommend the High Style exhibit at the Legion of Honor. The collection is on display until July 19!
What did you think of the exhibit? Tweet me @amymboone