Magazine article The New Yorker

Deshabille Chic

Magazine article The New Yorker

Deshabille Chic

Article excerpt

Patrons of couture generally fall into two categories: wives (or ex-wives) and their husbands' other women. There is a show for each at the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology and, rather like marriage and adultery, they offer a choice between the prix fixe and the tasting menu. The basement galleries are devoted to a retrospective of Arnold Scaasi's five decades in fashion. Scaasi is a sort of American Hartnell. Some of his clients ride in motorcades wearing matching coat-and-dress ensembles in floral brocade. Since they do a lot of waving and smiling on behalf of their spouses, they require clothes that are splashy yet irreproachable. Scaasi also specializes in gala party dresses that awaken one's childish gourmandise like the dessert buffet at a big Jewish wedding. Several such dresses in the show are of tulle, in riotous Easter-egg pastels, with frothy appliques that look like a swarm of butterflies or the air bubbles in a milkshake. There is no hauteur in Scaasi's rather Southern (Houstonian or Washingtonian) notion of glamour, which in a way is endearing. And not all the work is fussy: his lines are often boldly graphic. But something in the tone, perhaps a slightly forced, therapeutic cheerfulness, reminds me of Dr. Ruth Westheimer's superannuated giggle, and her insistence that old married couples can still--indeed, should feel obliged to--have wholesome fun in bed.

The French believe that one should seek unwholesome fun in any bed but one's own, and seduction is the theme of "Femme Fatale: Fashion and Visual Culture in Fin-de-Siecle Paris," a small, dreamy installation on F.I.T.'s main floor. It is curated by Valerie Steele, whose literate notes on the wall and at the base of each ensemble and accessory deserve praise for eschewing the artspeak that afflicts so many costume exhibitions. Steele concentrates on informative social history. As I squinted at the clothes (the low wattage of the lighting is, I assume, necessary to protect antique fabric), I recalled a line from the ballad "Sir Patrick Spens": "I saw the new moon late yestreen / Wi' the auld moon in her arm." At the penultimate fin de siecle, svelte, quicksilver modern woman was the new moon, but she was still burdened with her heavy-bodied, old goddess myths.

The thirty ensembles on display include a severely tailored yet sumptuous black riding costume by Denova, circa 1895--a skirt over invisible trousers with a closely buttoned, pigeon-breasted jacket. One understands why the French called huntresses thus attired Amazones: their sex appeal was intimidating whether or not they wore high-heeled boots and wielded a leather crop. At the other erotic extreme, a suite of tea gowns exudes the sensual languor of a courtesan waiting for her protector. One can imagine Odette receiving Swann in a confection by Mme. Denoix that is the color of watered absinthe, trimmed with fur, and open down the front to reveal a pink silk lining shimmering with glass beads that suggests, scandalously, the nudity beneath it. As a note points out, the tea gown (robe d'interieur) was a form of glorified deshabille that was worn only at home to receive one's intimates, "usually without a corset, thus combining comfort with a somewhat risque charm."

Every age has different standards of the risque, and at the end of the nineteenth century the costume a woman might respectably wear to a ball would constitute an actionable "outrage to public morality" on the street. A thrilling example of such a style in the show is an off-the-shoulder gown of labial red velvet from the House of Worth. It is something that a Wharton heroine with a yearning to be corrupted--say, Countess Olenska--might have bought on her Paris honeymoon, before she was relieved of her romantic illusions about corruption, along with her dowry, by a titled scoundrel. One also has to wonder about the sexual history of the lady whose hat is displayed in a vitrine of accessories, among them several pairs of satin slippers and boots as poignant in their fragility as bliss. …

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