By  on October 21, 2011

Hal Rubenstein knows from unforgettable. It’s a descriptive easily applied to him, a man of strong opinions expressed sans subtlety, whether the topic is fashion, food, politics, even tap dancing.

When Hal calls a dress unforgettable, you pay attention. When he calls 100 dresses unforgettable and binds them together into a smart, funny and extremely informative book, if you love fashion, pop culture or a witty turn of phrase, you’ve got to love it.

Published by the HarperCollins imprint Harper Design, Hal’s “100 Unforgettable Dresses” is a joy read, one that has him on a holiday-timed press offensive. No vanity project here; “I want this book to sell,” he states. To that end, and because of admitted populist proclivities, he rejected the publisher’s original pitch, finding it too insider. “I didn’t want this to be a book for the 500 people I sit with at fashion shows,” he says.

That said, there are moments of pure fashion, from McCardle sportswear and Kamali sweats to Halston Ultrasuede and Gianni Versace bondage. Hal calls the “Touring Dress,” from Miuccia Prada’s spring 2004 collection, perhaps his favorite of hers ever. “Basically, it’s a shirtwaist,” he observes. “This was around the time that Tom [Ford] was doing the white collection. Gianni was still alive. Fashion in Milan, it was Cavalli, it was Gianni, it was sex, sex, sex, sex, sex. It was Dolce. And she comes out with this dress that’s almost pristine, and yet is so incredibly sensual.”

Ford’s white collection made the cut as well: “Tom’s Sermon on the Mount. It was like, ‘Gucci is mine! Milan is mine. Sex is mine.’ ”

Along with great fashion, he identifies fortitude in Marc Jacobs’ grunge. “Marc is just the ultimate story in fashion of independence,” he notes. “And he’s the ultimate example of a designer that understands that fashion doesn’t exist in a vacuum.” He sees professional pathos in Stephen Sprouse’s great graffiti work: “Luck has so much to do with people’s careers. It’s luck, talent and perseverance. He had perseverance, and he undeniably had talent. Stephen didn’t have luck.” Hal considers the Sprouse entrée illustrative of the book’s subtle education strain. “In a very spoonful-of-sugar way, I’ve tried to help people understand the business of fashion. Here’s a man with complete and utter talent, but he designed downtown dresses with uptown prices. The very people who would look great in those clothes at the Mudd Club couldn’t afford to buy them.…Stephen couldn’t find a backer.”

Mostly this is a storybook of tales with frocks as the central characters, a notion with which the author does not disagree. “I’m a storyteller,” he says. “There were other beautiful and unforgettable dresses, but these had the best stories, whether it was how Marilyn Monroe created that dress for ‘Happy Birthday, Mr. President,’ or the effects that Marlo Thomas’ Jonathan Logan A-line dresses had on the public.” (That Marlo-loving demographic included Hal’s cousin Audrey, who was around Marlo’s age, and for her first job “went out and bought 23 Jonathan Logan dresses.”).

The book’s structure is free-form, its randomness making for a surprise per page. One stretch features Julianna Margulies in Oscar de la Renta, Joan Crawford in Adrian in the film “Letty Lynton,” Phyllis Diller in “bar mitzvah attire,” Christian Lacroix’s Pouf and Grace Jones in a mammoth ballgown by Keith Haring, all with compelling backstories. “My feeling was,” he explains, “that if I sucker people in, and I say that in a good way, with the stories, then you’ll pay attention to the fashion when we get to the fashion.”

Along the way, Hal mixes in celebrity icons. Though mostly obvious choices — Audrey, Grace, Tilda — the information fascinates. Hepburn, just 24 and working the power of her Oscar win for “Roman Holiday,” told the studio that for her post-Paris wardrobe for her next film, “Sabrina,” she wanted to work with Givenchy, 26, rather than with stalwart Edith Head. The studio consented, though Givenchy would get no credit and Hepburn had to finance his work. All agreed. When “Sabrina” won the best costume Oscar, Head accepted without mentioning Givenchy’s name.

“She wasn’t a nice lady, but she was a great designer,” Hal says. “Her whole impetus in ‘To Catch a Thief’ was to make Grace Kelly the most irresistible woman in the world. She truly achieved it. Travis Banton, Adrian, Edith Head. These were all the great designers of film, the people that made film such an extraordinary fantasy.”

Asked whether they get enough credit for being great designers, he offers that the last person who recognized them as such was Diana Vreeland. “She did the Hollywood exhibit at the Met, which I still think is the greatest one. I was a Glorious Food waiter at that one. There are three great exhibits at the Met, to me, in its history: Hollywood; the McQueen exhibition, which was unbelievable, and the Jackie Kennedy exhibition, which had the greatest text by Hamish [Bowles].”

Hal digresses, although not too far, as Jackie is one of his icons (“she used the clothes as a political tool”), and the house of McQueen merits two dresses: Lee McQueen’s Kate Moss hologram gown and Sarah Burton’s wedding dress for Kate Middleton. The royal wedding occurred three days after the book closed, requiring a literal stopping of the presses. (It also required cutting one of the original 100 dresses, as Hal refused to do 101; out went Nancy Reagan’s white one-shoulder James Galanos gown from her husband’s first inaugural ball.)

Other wedding dresses are unexpected (actress Linda Christian’s for her marriage to Tyrone Power) and expected (Carolyn Bessette Kennedy’s and Princess Diana’s). “Princess Diana’s dress, good or bad, hideous as it was — and, as we state, hideous — it changed the way women thought. They wanted to believe in that fairy tale so badly. And we all did, frankly.”

When reality didn’t live up to the fairy tale expectations, Diana let her wardrobe do the talking, at least once, when she stepped out in what Hal dubs “The Revenge Dress,” a tight black ruched number by Christina Stambolian. Diana owned it for three years before wearing it, and only pulled it out of her closet when she was set for a gallery appearance on the night Charles went on television to acknowledge his affair with Camilla Parker Bowles.

Hal approves of the “Take that, buster” school of dress selection, offering another example: Reese Witherspoon’s choice for the 2007 Golden Globes, a dress by Olivier Theyskens for Nina Ricci. “She would show up at events, pure Southern girl, her hair in ringlets, in a pretty little Valentino. And then [Ryan Phillippe] cheated. This was her first public appearance since all the rumors had hit. Nobody wants to be an object of pity — certainly not somebody who names their production company Type A Productions. So she straightens her hair, puts on a pair of Brian Atwood pumps and comes up in a canary yellow strapless cocktail dress and basically it’s like one big…The book calls it the ‘Ryan Who?’ dress, but I originally called it something else.”

The list goes on. Hal includes Bob Mackie, not only for the sensation of Cher but for dressing Carol Burnett in “the greatest parody dress of all time,” her “Starlett O’Hara” getup with curtain-rod shoulders. And in “Gilda,” Rita Hayworth “shows women, ‘See, I can dance in this [strapless dress] and I won’t pop out of it.’ It’s because there’s literally a plastic corset that’s clamped your boobs together.” Then there’s Elizabeth Taylor, at 19 in “A Place in the Sun,” her fluffy strapless “becoming the blueprint for every prom for the next 20 years”; Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman” red, at the “moment when everybody fell madly in love with this girl,” and Ginger Rogers “Cheek to Cheek” with Fred Astaire in the dancing dress of her dreams — but not director Mark Sandrich’s. The outfit shed fitfully, requiring more than 40 takes. He begged her to lose it; she said she’d rather lose the movie. She won.

Hal sums up his unforgettable equation by quoting Calvin Klein, one of several designers he interviewed for the book. “In the Halle Berry segment, Calvin says, basically, an unforgettable moment is the combination of the right dress on the right woman at the right time.”

Still, his belief in major fashion of the runway variety reveals itself at times — and passionately so. Case in point: another feathered wonder, this one worn by Carmen Kass in Karl Lagerfeld’s remarkable spring 2011 Chanel show. “First,” Hal says, getting peeved anew in retrospect, “that show was one of the great fashion moments of all time. Why he didn’t get a standing ovation that day really [expletive] the [expletive] out of me. I was like, ‘What the [expletive] is wrong with you people?’ There were 80 looks and yet when Carmen Kass walked out, as voluminous as that dress was, all the feathers went behind her and I still saw her body. The look on her face said, ‘I’ve got the best dress here.’ This was the essence of fantasy, glamour, audacity.” In a word, unforgettable.

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