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The De Young’s New Show Places San Francisco on the Fashion Map

— Photograph by Gary Sexton. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Not long after World War II, San Francisco-based department store I. Magnin & Company imported several gowns from France in anticipation of the reopening of the San Francisco Opera. It was the first import of its kind since the outbreak of the war years earlier, making the event momentous enough to warrant front page news in the San Francisco Chronicle. “It was a celebration, ‘Fashion is back in San Francisco!’” says Laura L. Camerlengo, curator in charge of costumes and textile arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, of the article. “The war has come to end, so come shopping and get back to life.” Almost 80 years later, one could argue San Francisco is in need of another fashion resurgence not unlike what it experienced in the wake of the second world war. Since 2020, about 40 retail stores have closed in the once thriving shopping district of Union Square, with dozens of others shuttering in adjacent neighborhoods. While once, San Francisco may have been heralded as a major city for imported French fashion, these days, it’s more known for athleisure.

But don’t expect Lululemon leggings and Vuori sweatshirts at the de Young Museum’s latest show, Fashioning San Francisco: A Century of Style. The exhibition, which runs through August 11th, features over 100 pieces from the museum’s archive, and marks the first display of de Young’s permanent collection since 1989. It’s a show about women’s clothing, of course, but also the history of a city, told through the eyes of the stylish people who helped shape it.

The show begins at the turn of the century—more specifically 1906, when an earthquake and fire destroyed 80 percent of the city. Following the tragedy, citizens got to work in order to return San Francisco to its former status as a metropolis mecca filled with culture, cuisine, and couture. By 1908, department stores were back up and running, and the previously popular practice of importing gowns from New York and Europe to San Francisco was reinstated.

— Photograph by Randy Dodson, courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Specifically, Parisian fashion stole the hearts of locals—which is why many of the first dresses in the exhibition come from French designers. The oldest piece in the show is a 1908 dress by Callot Soeurs, comprised of elegant cording and needlelace. Any fan of historic fashion will be shocked to see this 116-year-old garment standing on a dress form. After all, The Costume Institute’s forthcoming exhibit, “Sleeping Beauties” centers the very idea of historic pieces too fragile to be placed on mannequins; as a result, The Met will present their dresses laid flat.

For now, every piece featured in Fashioning has made it onto the form—a blessing if only to appreciate the extremely petite shape of a Jeanne Lanvin haute couture evening dress from 1924, or the beautifully draped Jean Patou gowns from 1927 and 1932 that fall just so on a woman’s body.

Fashioning manages to give each piece a place, time, and context in history. In the exhibition’s second section, the little black dress is explored—not just as a principle part of a woman’s wardrobe, but as an obvious choice for a grieving public following World War I. Of course, the LBD became a staple of style, and it’s in this section that the de Young’s impressive Christian Dior archive enters the conversation. A strapless full-skirted number from Dior’s 1948 haute couture collection evokes a flaky pastry with its folds and pleats, while selections from Yves Saint Laurent and Valentino Garavani show how the frock adapted to changing trends. The star of this section is undoubtedly a Saint Laurent-designed Dior 1955 haute couture evening dress, known mostly thanks to the Richard Avedon photograph Dovima With Elephants.

— Photograph by Randy Dodson, courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

As the exhibition continues, more modern pieces come into play. Midcentury Valentino and Saint Laurent designs are mirrored by a Bill Blass gown from 1985, a quintessential slip of a 1994 John Galliano, and a gorgeous silk Vivienne Westwood from 2013. The display cards place the pieces within the theme of the section, but also within the context of San Francisco. A digitally printed silk Ralph Rucci cape and gown, for example, was originally worn by former model Tatiana Sorokko to the San Francisco Symphony opening night gala in 2007.

— Photograph by Randy Dodson, courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
— Photograph by Randy Dodson, courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Fashioning tells the story of women as well—those who supported both designers and the city when they both needed the most help. A section celebrating formalwear in San Francisco is likely the most breathtaking of the exhibit, displaying the dresses worn by the philanthropists attending charity events in the midcentury to bolster San Francisco’s cultural centers when a limited government infrastructure wasn’t getting the job done. This part of the show is filled with gifts to the museum from women who wore these gowns to meet Queen Elizabeth during her visit to the city in 1983 or to elegant galas held at private homes. But before one can admire those pieces on the periphery, they must first take in what is the jewel of any collection it inhabits: Christian Dior’s Venus and Junon dress duo.

There are multiple Junon and Venus dresses (not including the Maria Grazia Chiuri recreation Natalie Portman wore to the Cannes Film Festival last year), and the Met is also using the iconic designs to promote their upcoming show. In 1949, Dior shipped various versions of the gowns to the United States and Canada so they could be displayed, but also copied via licensed agreements. The Junon and Venus in Fashioning are some of the only original couture creations left, and they were first placed on live models in SF department stores before they were donated to the museum’s collection. “The idea was to preserve them as representations of the creativity and excellence in fashion at the time,” says Camerlengo, the lead curator of the show.

— Photograph by Randy Dodson, courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
— Photograph by Randy Dodson, courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

There’s a brief tour of suiting, as well as a display of avant-garde designs, where the styling of international fashion icon and philanthropist Georgette “Dodie” Rosekrans is on full view. Rosekrans was a patron of John Galliano, financing many of his early collections, and a supporter of up-and-coming names in the late 20th century like Chinese American designer Kaisik Wong. Creations from Wong and Galliano are joined by surreal staples from Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo: flamboyant outfits of draped skirts with structured jackets and fabulous technicolor coats atop matelassé pants.

Once viewers complete their tour of the exhibition, it’s their turn to literally put themselves in the shoes of women like Rosekrans and the modern Bay Area fashion patron, Sheri McMullen. Downstairs, guests can “try on” three of the pieces from the show, thanks to augmented reality technology from Snap Inc. Step in front of a mirror, and Saint Laurent’s Dior gown will appear on you almost as if your Fairy Godmother conjured it up. (“That’s one of the benefits of being adjacent to Silicon Valley and the tech industry,” says Camerlengo. “They were excited to work with their hometown museum.”)

— Image courtesy of Snap Inc.

Fashioning provides a much-needed lesson in West Coast style and history—and most importantly, the women who made the city what it is today, and are needed now more than ever. Exiting the museum show, one might find themselves asking: where are the Rosekrans, the Sorokkos, the patrons of today? McMullen, owner of her popular eponymous Oakland boutique, comes to mind as a supporter of contemporary designers like Christopher John Rogers, and the exhibition does acknowledge her efforts. Still, when was the last time San Francisco fashion made front page news? Likely not since 1946. This show will change all of that.

Fashioning San Francisco: A Century of Style is on display at the de Young Museum from January 20, 2024–August 11, 2024.

Source: W Magazine

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