Robin Givhan: Famous Frocks That We Can All See Ourselves In

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 19, 2009

The lemongrass-colored sheath and coat that first lady Michelle Obama wore to her husband's inauguration in January will be the star attraction when New York's Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology opens its exhibition celebrating the work of designer Isabel Toledo.

For 25 years, Toledo has been widely admired within the fashion industry for her aesthetics and her attention to construction. But few consumers beyond the most devoted fashion aficionados had heard of the Cuban-born entrepreneur before Inauguration Day 2009, when her work entered history and became the subject of analysis and debate within the national peanut gallery. Was the ensemble too fancy for the occasion? Of course not, some replied, it's modern. Was the color too offbeat? No, it was regal. Was the fit right? Yes, it was fine. Everyone had an opinion.

It's no wonder that the museum announced the loan from the White House on Monday, even though the exhibition is not scheduled to open until June 17. Despite all the other pieces that will be included in "Isabel Toledo: Fashion From the Inside Out," the inauguration ensemble will draw the most attention.

Part of Toledo's skill as a designer is in creating clothes that "leave more room for the individual to express herself," says Valerie Steele, the museum's director and chief curator. That's an academic way of saying that the clothes don't force a woman into looking a certain way. Depending on the woman's temperament, the clothes can be aggressive or romantic, modernist or retro. By comparison, a woman slips into Ralph Lauren or Versace and you know what she's going to exude before she even zips up the dress.

The swearing-in suit is not necessarily Toledo's best work nor does it eloquently sum up a career that is only at its midway mark. As Steele noted, the dress is part of Toledo's "evolution" as a designer.

But the importance of the garment's provenance cannot be exaggerated. It wasn't worn by any old celebrity, whose old denim jacket might beguile us as we eat french fries at a Hard Rock Cafe. The Toledo ensemble was worn by a historical personage with a 72 percent favorability rating. That's a Madonna (nee Ciccone)-Princess Diana double whammy; that's triple fashion bonus points.

Our fascination with celebrity frocks often makes it difficult for museums to mount fashion exhibitions that depend solely on the charisma of the garments. In the past, for example, FIT has shown the work of designers such as Ralph Rucci and Yeohlee Teng. Their construction techniques are impressive, as are their conceptual approaches to design. Rucci references the visual arts. Teng approaches fashion design the same way an architect might construct a home: As she sees it, both are creating a form of shelter. But the exhibitions, while beautiful and smart, were cold. All of the high-brow analysis could not substitute for what a human connection and personal history would bring to the garments. It's an ongoing battle in fashion exhibitions: the scholarly preference for the clothes to stand on their own and the public fascination with the back story.

Despite Giorgio Armani's lasting influence in transforming the nature of business attire, when his retrospective opened at the Guggenheim Museum nine years ago, the most titillating and memorable parts of the exhibition were the clothes worn by celebrities.

Two of the most popular recent fashion exhibitions were at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute. One focused on the clothes of first lady Jacqueline Kennedy. The other was on the personal wardrobe of a woman named Iris Apfel. It's clear why the curious would be drawn to an exhibition of Kennedy's clothes. Being close to them was a bit like stepping into the world of someone who lived an extraordinarily private life in the public eye. Apfel, however, is not well-known outside of a New York and Palm Beach social set. She is an eccentric and wealthy woman who is an expert in textiles and who has accumulated a collection of clothing that mixed couture with flea-market treasures, designer frocks with ethnic costumes.

Fashion satisfies our voyeuristic desires to feel a connection to the famous who live so far outside our orbit as to seem unreal, untroubled and untouchable. But it also feeds our curiosity about the people next door, the guy in the next cubicle or the woman on the Metro. Celebrity is a bonus; it heightens the nosy pleasure. But there's something intriguing in viewing any individual's wardrobe. We want to see it for the same reason that we can't resist house tours and garage sales. People's stuff sheds light on who they are. And inevitably, something in that pile of detritus, some detail in a garment, reminds us of shared references, pleasures or insecurities. Our castoffs and giveaways help bridge social and cultural divides. And clothes, put into context -- who wore it and when -- make memories and perceptions more vivid.

It's hard to walk through a fashion exhibition and not hear murmured words of recognition when viewers see a dress, hat or suit that reminds them of something in their own wardrobe. They can't resist noting the size of a garment. Invariably, the clothes, whether they belong to men or women, are smaller than expected. Fame makes people loom large. The spotlight makes them more dazzling. Fashion adds to the magic, crafting the illusions and the facades behind which we all hide to some extent.

Wandering through a fashion exhibition, the kind that tells us about who wore the clothes -- and not merely who donated them -- is a bit like learning the secret to a magician's trick. A dynamic, glamorous image is pulled apart. A powerful one is made more humble. Imperfections that are invisible when performers are viewed on a Jumbotron become obvious. Icons become more human.

Fashion's bookish, technical side might get ignored, but its true power is revealed.

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