Famed fashion designer Oscar de la Renta died Monday night at age 82, and while he’ll likely be remembered as the couturier du jour to America’s first ladies, he was so much more.
For decades, his gowns inspired girls and women — from the Park Avenue princesses who could afford his offerings in Bergdorff’s to suburban, middle-American housewives who splurged on the pajamas bearing his name.
His creations inspired breathless cooing by the likes of Carrie Bradshaw and every would-be fashionista scrutinizing the choices of “Sex and the City” costume designer Patricia Field.
It was de la Renta’s name that graced one of the most terrific and delicious reads, expertly delivered by Meryl Streep, in recent cinematic history: the cerulean sweater scene from “The Devil Wears Prada.” Poor Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) makes the mistake of giggling as terrified assistants pore over styling choices with Runway magazine editor Miranda Priestly, who was notoriously based on Vogue editor Anna Wintour.
Priestly asks if she finds something funny.
“You know, it’s just that both those belts look exactly the same to me,” Andy says. “You know, I’m still learning about all this stuff.”
And then it came:
This … stuff’?
I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don’t know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s actually cerulean. You’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves Saint Laurent, wasn’t it, who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room.
From a pile of stuff.
Field’s work on the show was marked by her dizzying and Byzantine pairings of high and low. However, when the time came for Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) to attend the opening of “La Traviata” at the Metropolitan Opera in an Oscar de la Renta gown — gifted by her boyfriend, Aleksandr Petrovsky (Mikhail Baryshnikov) — Field wisely decided to let the pink drop-waisted confection shine on its own. It was complimented with simple metallic high-heel sandals and small diamond stud earrings, and Carrie’s trademark curls were smoothed, blown out and tamed into a sleek ponytail. The dress was set off with a chic black bolero jacket with light-pink satin lapels and a black patent leather belt.
Carrie comes to own the dress after burrowing away in Petrovsky’s apartment to avoid the dreary New York winter. He composes music for her on his piano, reads her poetry in front of a crackling fire. When she grows uncomfortable with the sweeping, seemingly unrealistic romance of it all, Carrie attempts to lighten the mood with a little poetry of her own: Vogue’s description of the cocktail dress de la Renta designed.
“Oscar is good friend of mine,” Petrovsky says in heavily Russian-accented English. “I’ll tell him you like the dress.”
“Oscar? You — you call him Oscar?” Carrie asked Petrovsky, incredulous.
To Carrie’s delight, he surprises her with it later.
As a costuming choice, it made perfect sense: It would have been right at home in the formal halls of the Met that, on an opening night, would have been filled with the upper-crust of New York’s arts scene glitterati — Upper East Side types who love de la Renta’s classic feminine aesthetic — but they never make it. Carrie, overwhelmed, swoons on the sidewalk.
“Ya gotta take it down a notch,” she tells Petrovsky, which is how the two end up in McDonald’s, enjoying a dance in surroundings more suited to Carrie’s unique brand of cynicism, crafted by decades of dating in New York. Even basted in the harsh fluorescent overhead light of the world’s most ubiquitous greasy spoon, set off by sad gray floors and blue-and-white ceramic wall tile, the movement and joy woven into de la Renta’s work would not be denied.
Earlier this year, as the Metropolitan Museum of Art honored designer Charles James, de la Renta’s was once again one of the most head-turning looks of the night, worn by New York’s favorite fashion It Girl and de la Renta devotee, Parker:
It, and the pink gown from “Sex and the City,” will surely be known as two of his most memorable creations. And thanks to Parker, there’s absolutely no mistaking the Met Gala gown as anyone but de la Renta’s.
“Did you see his name on the back?” Parker asked Vanity Fair when they interviewed her on the red carpet. “I said to Mr. De la Renta, please let me use scarlet embroidery thread, and splash your name across the back. It was my idea. He would never in a million years have done it, he’s far too modest.”