A Look at Fashion’s Exotic Past

In today's world of globalization and multiculturalism, fashion's attachment to the unknown, weird or exotic might not seem all that unusual, but a new exhibition at The Museum at FIT details how exoticism in fashion has changed over the past 250 years.

NEW YORK — In today’s world of globalization and multiculturalism, fashion’s attachment to the unknown, weird or exotic might not seem all that unusual, but a new exhibition at The Museum at FIT details how exoticism in fashion has changed over the past 250 years.

Long before a mouse click was all it took to access images of far-off places and people dressed in unfamiliar attire, fashion and textile designers were using exoticism to conjure up all sorts of ideas. Just as spices and silk were trafficked along trade routes, so too was fashion. In 1908, French writer Victor Segalen suggested exoticism meant simply “the perception of the diverse.” More recently, Belgian designer Dries Van Noten said, “For me, it is rather everything that reroutes us from the ordinary.”

Clearly, exoticism has thrived for centuries even if contemporary designers only warmed up to the idea in the past 10 to 15 years, said associate research curator Tamsen Schwartzman. She and other staffers drew pieces from the museum’s 50,000 garments and accessories as well as its 30,000 textiles.

Visitors to the museum will find 70 looks from an array of designers including Paul Poiret, Mainbocher, the Callot Sisters, Xuly Bet’s Lamine Koyate, Yeohlee and Stoned Cherry’s Nkhensani Manganyi Nkosi. The exhibition opens with two saris from the Forties worn by Princess Niloufer of Hyderabad, who epitomized the global fashion customer by wearing India’s traditional dress and buying couture from Lanvin, Schiaparelli and others.

Another standout in the show is an early 18th-century red silk damask brocade hat with metallic lace and cording meant to be worn by men relaxing at home in a “banyan.” Another example of the Eastern influence can be seen in an 1870 morning dress made of kimono fabric.

Museumgoers won’t want to miss a trio of glittery Indian-inspired ensembles from Oscar de la Renta, Thea Porter and Christian Dior — testimony to the opulence and luxury that has attracted designers to that country for years, museum director Valerie Steele said.

A drop-waist dress designed by Poiret that once belonged to his wife, Denise, has subtle medallions on the skirt, similar to the larger ones that are commonly seen on kimonos. In that same gallery, there is a black jersey Mainbocher gown with saris draped and pieced together near the waist that offers a more exotic design.

This story first appeared in the November 28, 2007 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

In the Fifties, Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue were proponents of promoting travel, said assistant curator of costume Molly Sarkin. The exhibition includes a 1952 print ad for Everfast fabrics, Claire McCardell and Panagra airlines. “The Italians did something similar in the Fifties. Visit Italy, buy Italian fashion and drink Chianti,” said Steele. A piece nearby is a nod to another trip: A hot pink Bonnie Cashin evening gown on display was inspired by her journey to India in the mid Fifties. At that time, the Ford Foundation sponsored her trip to explore importing textiles.

More contemporary pieces include Kenzo’s East-West styles and Yves Saint Laurent’s affinity for design elements drawn from Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Aside from visiting his home in Morocco, Saint Laurent’s travels have been “interestingly mostly through his head…” said Steele. “Exoticism has always been central to his aesthetic.”