NEW YORK — Walk the streets of any major city and it’s easy to see women’s suits have gone the way of springtime hats and gloves.
The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology is doing what it can to spur a return to more formal dressing with a new exhibition, “The Tailor’s Art.”
Featuring everything from a man’s embroidered velvet suit circa 1785 to a leather one made by Roberto Cavalli in 2003, the show illustrates how tailoring has not changed all that much in the past 250 years, said research curator Patricia Mears.
Stretching over four rooms, “The Tailor’s Art” has an introduction followed by three galleries’ worth of fashion and fabrics from the 18th century to the present taken from the museum’s permanent collection. The subject had the potential to be as interesting as a slow perusal of a copy of the Royal Tailor’s Catalogue of men’s suits, but Mears managed to create a lively presentation with help of FIT’s associate curator of costume, Fred Dennis; assistant curator of Accessories Clare Sauro, and textiles technologist Lynn Weidne.
During a tour of the exhibition, Mears said: “The challenge was how to present this idea over 250 years. We didn’t want to put a bunch of dark suits up. We wanted to give people an idea of the precision and detailing these clothes require.”
One of the finest examples of this is the 1895 jacket with leg-of-mutton sleeves, with its black soutache trim and braiding on the back. The most intricate piece on display is a 1905 silk and cotton “Iris” dress covered with hand-stitched and hand-painted irises. Draping, a technique that flourished in Paris couture houses before World War I, had a major impact on women’s attire in the early 20th century, Mears noted.
The work of one of the world’s premier drapers, Madame Grès, is on display, but also on display is one of her more unexpected creations — a 1950 tartan silk shantung outfit with a cinched waist. Another unexpected find is Gilbert Adrian’s everyday dress and cape, which required draping, drawing and cutting to create a bias hand-stitching, and then had to be pieced together and notched by a machine, Dennis said. “It’s a real Prozac moment.”
His-and-her barbecue outfits, Westernwear and a Mariachi band outfit are a few of the more amusing mementos. These throwbacks from the Fifties underline the conformity of that decade. A man’s gray flannel suit reminiscent of the one Sloane Wilson wrote about in his 1955 bestseller, “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” shows the unified dressing that was the norm. Nearby, a 1930 emerald green silk chiffon Molyneux looks like something that could have inspired Noel Coward, Mears said.
There’s also a copy of designer and author Anne Fogarty’s “Wife Dressing: The Fine Art of Being a Well-Dressed Wife,” a 1959 book of fashion pointers for homemakers that has, as the book cover indicates, “provocative notes for the patient husband who pays the bills.” Fogarty practiced what she preached, allegedly taking 17 trunks on her honeymoon, Mears said.
Moving into the Sixties, a slim-fitting Chanel suit, not her standard boxy cut, and Geoffrey Beene’s take on a glen plaid dress show more updated examples of tailoring. There also are glimpses of the Peacock Revolution, as evidenced by the purple Nehru jacket by the obscure Jacques of Greenwich Village.
Accessories and textiles — from an 1883 ladies’ riding hat to fabric imprinted with biplanes and images of Charles Lindbergh — add another dimension to “The Tailor’s Art.”
Mears credited Yves Saint Laurent, whose gangster women’s suit and le smoking tuxedo are exhibited, for “creating a whole new vocabulary for the pantsuit.” His designs had such an impact that his influence can be seen in Ann Demeulemeester’s deconstructed tuxedo dress from 1996.
On a lighter note, a mismatched suit in sherbet shades that Don Johnson wore on “Miami Vice” is featured as a memory of the Eighties. Getting back to design, Mears said Giorgio Armani “did more than anyone else to generate interest in tailoring, but he reworked it as casual.”
More updated suits by Thom Browne and Cloak’s Alexander Plokhov provide the grand finale. “We thought it was important to cap this off with designs that are being done in the U.S,” Mears said. “We are a 10-minute walk away from where these men design and where their clothes are made.”