|Hand-embellished evening dress with cap sleeves, 1953|
"It's all too much, and that's where the loveliness - the couture moment - begins. The clothes are extravagant and unreal, but they don't seem camp. They don't seem artificial or out of this world, just symbolic of a common human hope that the world could be something other than it is - younger and more musical and less exhausting and better lit. It proposed that the little moments of seduction on which, when we look back, so much of our life depends, could unfold as formally as they deserve to, and all dressed up…
Couture is a romantic cartoon. It's a caricature of the romantic impulse, with a cartoon's exaggerations but a cartoon's energy and lighthearted poetry too. The thing you feel in a couture moment isn't 'What a wonderful dress' or, as you do with higher kinds of art, 'What a good place the world is,' but, more simply, 'I'm in love.'" Adam Gopnik from Paris to the Moon.
|Evening dress with pin tucks set into "hand-span", waist, 1952|
If you read this blog, then you know that there is a special place in my heart for achingly beautiful things and the craftsmen (and women) and artisans who pour themselves into their creations. And if we’re talking about lovely things, surely couture with its singular vision tops the list. Couture is just breathtaking with its precision, beautifully resolved ideas, sets, lighting, and those fabrics. For the longest time, I couldn’t even begin to explain it. It’s simply what I know.
And then, the lovely Hannah Rose introduced me to this brilliant quote that made it all make sense…
|Evening dress stiffened with horsehair and tulle, 1960|
|Evening dress in Indian sari fabric, 1963|
I relish the opportunity to learn about the art of couture by visiting ateliers and designer studios. When I travel, such visits are always high on my list of priorities. Yet, there’s nothing like indulging my love of couture in my own city. On a cold winter afternoon, the gentleman and I ducked into the Aronson Gallery at Parsons to see Sophie Gimbel Fashioning American Couture. Having the quiet, sun lit gallery all do ourselves was the perfect way to spend a snowy afternoon.
|"Harlequinade" velvet/satin dress with net overlays, 1963|
Sophie Gimbel’s voice was integral in establishing a distinct fashion identity in the US. During the 1950s and 1960s American department stores like Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue would send their buyers to Paris to have choice styles produced in the US. It always gets me to find a licensed couture copy of an Elsa Schiaparelli or Dior piece for resale. As the head custom designer at Saks' Salon Moderne, Gimbel did away with the established precedent of purchasing exclusive rights to the best couture designs from the Paris collections. At a time when Christian Dior’s New Look dominated American fashion, Sophie Gimbel wasn’t afraid to forge a new identity. This meant designing four hundred unique American styles for Salon Moderne each year.
|Embroidered evening dress with lace scoop neckline, 1957|
Mid-century couture, with its shapes, refined elegance, and sculptural volumes is in the midst of a resurgence. Yet it always amazes me that Gimbel’s name, has largely been left out of the narrative. I have a soft spot for female designers (Madame Grès comes to mind) whose legacies have largely lived on in obscurity. A tightly edited exhibition celebrating the many couture construction techniques and methods that Gimbel invented was a fitting homage.
The use of the finest textiles from India and Italy, soft tailoring, subtle embellishment and meticulous precision left me (for one afternoon at the very least) in heaven. For the simple fact that, for me, a well-constructed and aesthetically beautiful garment starts from the inside.
* The first image is a personal scan from the exhibition guide. All other images are courtesy of the Aronson Gallery at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center.