NEW YORK — With her unmistakable style, raspy voice and Oscar-nominated career, Lauren Bacall could command any room she entered, so it’s fitting that film clips and photographs of the late actress have a similar effect on visitors at “Lauren Bacall: The Look,” which is on show at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
Months before her death in August at the age of 89, Bacall had given the graduate studies-led concept an approving nod for what would be the first exhibition dedicated to her style and career. The show opens with a larger-than-life illustration of her based on a Richard Rutledge portrait of her, but it is her own voice in the 1968 CBS special “Bacall and the Boys” that underscores how ingrained the model-turned-actress was in the fashion scene.
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In the main gallery, a large screen plays a clip of the program, which was filmed in Paris to showcase fall collections from Pierre Cardin, Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan and Emanuel Ungaro. Bacall takes viewers along on an atelier fitting, to a fashion show in a “packed-to-the-rafters” salon and on a short spin down a country road with Saint Laurent in his Rolls Royce convertible. But the Bronx-born longtime New Yorker also emphasizes the pragmatic aspect of fashion, saying, “It may seem frivolous — it isn’t….It’s the basis for an $18 billion industry in the U.S. alone. It provides a lot of jobs for a lot of people. And it’s the one thing that women really look forward to.”
In the Saint Laurent portion of the show, she vows to wear pants “day and night, night and day,” even to fancy restaurants and daring them to throw her out. In another scene dancing by herself beside Cardin, she mentions how he spent three years developing the packable, technical Cardine dress, which women can carry in a paper bag. To prove that point, she did just that, pulling the Drynel pink minidress from a bag and putting it on. Like a few other looks featured in “Bacall and the Boys,” the Cardin dress is displayed nearby.
Louise Dahl-Wolfe’s 1943 Harper’s Bazaar cover shot of Bacall posing as a Red Cross nurse is among the modeling shots on view. Bacall once said it was the magazine’s famed editor Diana Vreeland who first made her aware of fashion. “I noticed what she wore, which were always the simplest things,” she said.
Placards reveal footnotes such as that the actress’ signature look stemmed from insecurity — as she initially started lowering her chin and gazing with hooded eyes to steady her nerves. Museumgoers need to read the fine print of her 1968 “What Becomes a Legend Most” ad for Blackglama to learn she was the first celebrity to do one. And a closer inspection of the “Bacall and the Boys” poster indicates that Joe Eula designed it.
The near-neon Norman Norell pink wool coat with jumbo pink rhinestone buttons that Bacall wore in the 1964 film “Sex and the Single Girl” appears more reminiscent of Carrie Bradshaw than Helen Gurley Brown. That look and its coordinating dress are among the 700-plus pieces spanning from 1968 to 1986 that Bacall donated to the museum—many of which can be viewed via the iPad in the gallery. But Bacall never hid her zeal for fashion, “From the day I could afford it, I shopped too much,” she once said.
A steely gray corridor leads to the main exhibition room and features one wall covered with photographs, Playbills and magazine clips about Bacall while the other only has a city skyline drawing. The effect is meant to relay how Bacall managed to protect her privacy despite being such a public personality, said Hannah Adkins, a student curator for “Lauren Bacall: The Look.” And adding to that dichotomy was the fact that when speaking in public, “she was the kind of person who actually sounded like herself,” Adkins added.
Bonhams New York will auction 750 lots from Bacall’s estate March 31 and April 1, including art from her Los Angeles home with her first husband, Humphrey Bogart, as well as her apartment in The Dakota, which she shared at one point with her second husband, Jason Robards.
While there seemed to be no interviews with Bacall about her fashion sense, the graduate students mined such nuggets as her fondness for shopping at Loehmann’s. “She would say things [in print] like, ‘Fashion shows are boring.’ But she was always at them all the time in the Sixties and the Seventies,” Adkins said.
Lauren Bacall: The Look is on view through April 4.