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Fabulous Forties Fashions Have Their Day

WASHINGTON — Even the most savvy political players in the capital have had disappointments when it comes to mixing public policy with high fashion.<BR><BR>Just listen to the buzz at the Kennedy Center lunch last week for the opening of...

WASHINGTON — Even the most savvy political players in the capital have had disappointments when it comes to mixing public policy with high fashion.

Just listen to the buzz at the Kennedy Center lunch last week for the opening of “Fabulous! Fashions of the 1940s’’ organized with the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. 

“I wore a turban like that to a military event,” recalled Alma Powell, wife of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, eyeing a hat by the famous milliner Lily Dache, one of the 31 exhibits in the show. Clearly, said Powell, her husband was not amused. “Colin was indignant. After the party, he turned to a friend and said, ‘You know she wore that rag on her head.’”

The exhibition, which runs through April 14, marks the Kennedy Center’s first collaboration with FIT and is part of the center’s festival, “A New America: The 1940s and the Arts.”

FIT organizers took care to coddle their fashion-forward patrons. Show curator Ellen Shanley didn’t miss a beat when Kennedy Center board member Buffy Cafritz arrived wearing her newest Ralph Rucci ensemble. Walking her over to the fake-fur persian lamb hooded coat designed by Madame Grès and the Balenciaga cut velvet Belle Epoque court style evening gown, Shanley said, “Ralph Rucci loves both these designers.’’

Included in the show are two body-hugging wool swimsuits by Claire McCardell made without any undergarments; six dresses and two gowns by Gilbert Adrian, one using fabric inspired by Pablo Picasso and another made from a dramatic black-and-white print designed by Salvador Dali, and a utilitarian design by Molyneux, a wool houndstooth dress with pockets in the front and back. Mixed in with designs from French and American designers like Hattie Carnegie and Elsa Schiaparelli are fashion photographs by Louise Dahl-Wolfe for Harper’s Bazaar and John Rawlings for Condé Nast. The show will bow on June 14 at the Museum at FIT.

“We decided to celebrate the 1940s because it was such a remarkable decade for American creativity,” said Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser, who credits Hollywood with his appreciation for fashions of the period. “Coming out of World War II, we experienced this burst of enthusiasm and optimism, which you can see in the concert halls, with music from Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland, in dance with Martha Graham, in jazz and big-band music and in the theater with plays by new talents like Tennessee Williams.”

FIT also used the occasion to show off its success in attracting loyal patrons, starting and ending the show with dresses from the late Beatrice Renfield. The New York heiress donated the tomato red crepe, one shoulder gown by Norman Norell. After her death two years ago, her son donated her orange and gold Norell 1948 dress and coat that closes the show.

Following Renfield’s death, her son Robert invited the Museum at FIT and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute to choose the designs each wanted. “We both wanted the Norell, and her family decided to give it to us,’’ Shanley said.

After lunch, museum director Valerie Steele entertained the group with a lecture on the French and American fashions during and after World War II, noting that until the German occupation of France, American designers saw their jobs as largely derivative, translating French couture for the American market.

Steele ended her talk with a strong message for the 100 women in the audience.

“If any of you have any dresses from this period and would like to donate them to us, please come and see me after the luncheon,” she said, to hearty laughter from the crowd.

Ann Stock, Kennedy Center vice president for institutional affairs, confided that collectors might want to take a peek into Alma Powell’s closet. “She has her mother’s wedding dress, a royal blue velvet, which is in really good shape,” Stock said. “If you’re a curator, that’s the kind of thing you want to know about.”