While in the past AEQAI’s fashion focus has been on the international runways of fashion’s luxury giants, this month we are staying decidedly close to home at the Cincinnati Art Museum, up the hill on Eden Park Drive.

The Cincinnati Art Museum’s many departments strive to invigorate Cincinnati with works and exhibitions that are both thought-provoking and enlightening. Some may not know, however, that the Art Museum’s Department of Fashion Arts, in particular, is one of the best in the nation, and the museum’s great fashion shows come from this area.

Under the leadership of curator Cynthia Amnéus, many interesting fashion exhibits have graced the upper halls of the Museum. And as of November 7, visitors to the Cincinnati Art Museum can now view the department’s newest exhibit, High Style: Twentieth Century Masterworks from the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection. With the term style in the title, some may think the exhibit is a lesson in fashion trends from seasons’ past. But those people would be wrong. In fact, High Style is a walk through the history of the designers who shaped what we now call fashion. 

Cynthia Amnéus, Chief Curator and Curator of Fashion Arts at the Cincinnati Art Museum, states that “this exhibition brings to Cincinnati examples by some of the most important fashion designers of the 20th century from the one of the oldest and most distinguished American collections. It is a tremendous opportunity for us to showcase these quintessential fashions and tell the story of the designers behind them. These men and women were artists whose clothes were the ultimate expression of style for those who wore them.”

House of Worth (French, 1858-1956); Roger Worth (French, born 1908), Evening Dress, ca. 1938, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Ogden Goelet, Peter Goelet and Madison Clews in memory of Mrs. Henry Clews, 1961, 2009.300.305, Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The exhibit itself is mainly divided into four segments: French Haute Couture, American Female Designers, American Male Designers and a focus on the work of master craftsman Charles James. Each segment has its own piece in the puzzle of 20th century style and it was refreshing to see it in this way, versus a purely chronological showcase.

To begin, the exhibition focuses on the haute couture tradition of France. Meaning “high sewing” or “high dress-making”, haute couture is the highest level of luxury fashion in the world and the most regulated. Paris’ Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture keeps a watchful eye over the specifically chosen designers allowed to create haute couture. Many rules are in place to keep the tradition alive including that the pieces must be crafted by hand by artisans in the fashion house’s atelier in Paris.

To begin the High Style exhibit with these designers shows the true evolution of the fashion industry from one of extreme privilege to the open marketplace we know today. From the late 1800s to just after World War II, fashion was not for the hoi polloi and those from the highest echelon of society looked to Paris for these highly intricate, exclusive designs by designers from House of Worth and Callot Soeurs to Elsa Schiaparelli and Christian Dior. Changing time and opinions did modernize the looks, but the beauty of haute couture techniques remained the same.

Highlights of the French Haute Couture section were many. Jeanne Lanvin’s silver lamé floral-embroidered dress highlighted the drop waist look of the 1920s. Elsa Schiaparelli’s butterfly print dress represented her role in the migration from formfitting, corseted garments to looser, less-restrictive silhouettes begun by Paul Poiret and Coco Chanel. A small section of jersey pieces by Madeleine Vionnet and Madame Grès also represented this movement visually. And, last but certainly not least, was Christian Dior’s New Look cocktail dress embroidered with paillettes and pink horse hair. The cinched-in waist, full skirt silhouette introduced by Mr. Dior was revolutionary and many say that it was actually inspired by the Mr. Charles James himself.

Speaking of Coco Chanel, the French designer’s influence in the 20th century simply can’t be overstated. She was mentioned multiple times in exhibit’s descriptions, but the only garment of hers shown was one of her little black dresses. Although this inception was a key development in style, it would have been lovely to see one of her earlier pieces that helped revolutionize the clothing women wore on a daily basis.

As the industry itself became more open, due in part to trying times of the world wars, American designers cemented their place in the lexicon of 20th century fashion designers. Fitting then that the Cincinnati Art Museum’s organized their exhibit to move seamlessly from haute couture to America’s female fashion designers.

Mme. Eta Hentz (American, born Hungary), Evening Dress, 1944, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Madame Eta Hentz, 1946, 2009.300.119, Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

With the highlighting of female designers, it’s clear mid-century fashion was not just dominated by men. Women had a voice and it was a welcome change of pace to see their designs on display separate from their male contemporaries’.

Eta Hentz’s designs were sold as ready-to-wear, meaning available to a much wider audience compared to haute couture. The evening dress showcased in the exhibit is from her famed 1943 Grecian collection.

Like Hentz, Bonnie Cashin’s main focus was on ready-to-wear clothing. Her designs as “The Mother of American Sportswear” put a premium on functionality and ease of movement. The timing of Cashin’s sculptured pieces was right in line with what was happening in the world outside as women were starting to gain more independence at that midcentury point.

High Style: Twentieth Century Masterworks from the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection next focuses on the work of Charles James. James is not a household name in the vein of Dior or Balenciaga. There isn’t an IT bag in stores with Mr. James’ name on it, but he is without a doubt one of the greatest designers of fashion’s golden era. It is appropriate that the exhibit chose to showcase his work in such great detail.

Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 1906-1978), Clover Leaf Ball Gown, 1953, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Josephine Abercrombie, 1953, 2009.300.784, Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The British-born designer was known for his complex designs that were just as intricately constructed underneath as what the eye saw on the surfaces. Thus curators chose to incorporate two additional elements into the Charles James section: muslin and digital re-construction. James created his garments first in muslin and the exhibit places these garments next to their finished counterparts. It’s like seeing the skeleton next to the body and makes for an awe-inspiring examination at James’ working methods, and, thus, his true genius.  And to give visitors a step-by-step look at the physical construction of the final pieces, the exhibit installed digital animation portals from the architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro that were used in the The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Charles James exhibit. And for those of us unable to visit New York when Charles James: Beyond Fashion was on display in Spring 2014, we are very lucky to be able to see James’ work up close now.

Arnold Scaasi (American, born Canada, 1931), Evening Ensemble, 1983, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Mrs. William Randolph Hearst, Jr., 1991, 2009.300.1063a,b, Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The final section of the exhibit, American Male Designers, showcased the men who made their mark on American fashion design. Halston’s rainbow evening caftan shows the designer’s true talent in working with fabric. The caftan itself is made with only one piece of silk with a simple tie-back.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Arnold Scaasi. The designer, who started his career working with Charles James, sadly passed away this year at the age of 85. Scaasi’s forte was eveningwear with the word subtle not being a part of his vocabulary. Quite perfect considering the high end and A-list clientele that he almost exclusively worked with. Two of his pieces were one display, one of which is the silk poppy dress pictured.

The two American-focused sections provided an interesting look at similar time periods approached by designers of different genders. Unfortunately instead of viewing the American Male Designers directly after the female, the natural flow of the room seemed to entice patrons to visit Charles James first. Perhaps this was not the actual intention, but as a visitor that’s how it felt. And it may have played a part in not seeing all of the invaluable connections among the American designers that would have been possible if they were laid out one after the other.

There are so many more items we can touch on with this exhibit, but we don’t want to give everything away. What is important is this: High Style: Twentieth Century Masterworks from the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection beautifully illustrates the genius of the artisans who we call fashion designers. These craftsmen and women did not create clothing, they created art in its purest form: Art to be worn and shown to the world.

This exhibit is not  merely for the lover of fashion. This exhibit is for the lover of beauty, of craftsmanship, and most importantly, of art.

Jenny Perusek is a freelance Brand Manager, specializing in fashion and the creative arts.

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