Legion Of Honor in San Francisco is now home to fine couture, fine art

Brooklyn Museum/Legion of Honor/Courtesy

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“Fashion is not an art,” said Pierre Bergé, the co-founder of the Yves Saint Laurent couture house and life partner of Saint Laurent, once. “Fashion needs an artist to exist, but it’s no art. It’s just clothes. But Yves Saint Laurent was an artist.” Regardless of whether one believes in the validity of that statement, it would be remiss to say the pieces designed and created by artists such as Saint Laurent are nothing less than works of art.

Until July 19, San Francisco’s Legion of Honor will host “High Fashion: The Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection,” which showcases more than 60 mannequins, dressed in the masterpieces of iconic couturiers such as Charles James, Christian Dior, Givenchy, Chanel and Saint Laurent. The ensembles were chosen by Jan Glier Reeder, the consulting curator of the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“High Style” catalogs the evolution of fashion from the early 1900s to the 1970s with representative pieces from the most influential designers of each era. The exhibit emphasizes the impact of female pioneers in the fashion industry of the 20th century, from surrealist designer Elsa Schiaparelli to fashion icon Rita de Acosta to American sportswear designer Vera Maxwell among many others.

Rita de Acosta, described as “the most picturesque woman in America,” was an American socialite whose daring style and societal influence created an indelible mark on the history of fashion. Her personal collection, donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, showcased her lifestyle of unbridled opulence and innovation. She was among the first women to foster an aesthetic that strayed from the high fashion corset gowns toward unorthodox bohemian lace vests, silk jumpsuits and backless gowns. De Acosta’s iconic style opened new doors in womenswear and paved the way for future generations to come.

Elsa Schiaparelli, a designer whose career coincided with the careers of Coco Chanel and Madeleine Vionnet, was best known for her whimsical and unusual works. The exhibit included many noteworthy pieces from her collection: a dress with fabric seed packets sewn arbitrarily on the piece, an evening dress and a matching parasol printed with small realistic butterflies — which are a common surrealist representation of metamorphosis — and her iconic necklace, made of clear cellulose acetate plastic with pressed tin bugs, which give the impression that the wearer has insects crawling on her neckline. Schiaparelli is a designer whose artistic wit creates awe-inspiring pieces that transcend the barriers of time with ease and grace.

The highlight of the exhibition, however, was the collection of Charles James’ sketches, gowns and muslins. Known as “America’s first couturier,” James considered himself as an artist and a sculptor rather than a dressmaker. He used mathematical and architectural concepts in order to manipulate the fabric and the structure in complicated ways that give his dresses a subtle elegance, which continues to inspire other contemporary designers. James’ mastery of a dress’ form, color and texture is best displayed in the pinnacle of the “High Style” exhibit, the Clover Leaf ball gown. The Clover Leaf ball gown combines different fabrics: Satin was used on the body of the dress, with black lace, sewn loosely on the edges and low luster faille supplementing the copper-toned raw silk hemline of the dress. James considered this dress the greatest accomplishment of his career, and it’s hard to disagree.

The world of fashion is a fickle industry. The story is all too familiar; designers deliver innovative collections that make headlines across the world, and when they inevitably retire or die, their legacy fades into obscurity as the new generation begin to make a name for themselves. Exhibitions detailing the history of fashion are not as readily available to the layman compared to that of other forms of visual art like paintings, sculptures, photography or architecture and subsequently the cultural worth of fashion is questioned. But “High Style”’s beautiful curation of couture’s colorful history proves that fashion indeed has a place in the world of art.

The collection will be on display until July 19. 

Contact Joshua Gu at [email protected].