A new exhibition “Arbiters of Style: Women at the Forefront of Fashion,” at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, features some of the usual suspects and a few of whom you may have never heard.
Denise Poiret, Diana Vreeland, Coco Chanel, Claire McCardell and Carolina Herrera are among the expected in the lineup of 50 tastemakers, but the same cannot be said for the Oregon-based sisters and dressmakers Ann and May Shogren, the dancer Irene Castle (who bobbed her hair in the Teens) or the Misses Harris, sister milliners circa 1888.
The show, which runs through Nov. 8, celebrates the creators, promoters and influential clients who have shaped the course of fashion for the past 250 years. It defines an arbiter of style as “a tastemaker [whether publicly anointed or self-proclaimed] who has the authority to judge and dictate what is fashionable.”
To illustrate the one-two punch of how fashion can be dramatic, there is a display case near the entrance showcasing an Oscar de la Renta caftan and a Mila Schön acid green day suit worn by Diana Vreeland during her Vogue days. A quote from the late editrix imprinted on a nearby placard, “Fashion must be the most intoxicating release from the banality of the world,” seems to emphasize the point.
The exhibition kicks off with a Lucile-designed velvet suit that once belonged to Castle and a dress Paul Poiret designed for his wife and muse, Denise. There is also a 1935 Chanel suit worn by the photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe, who was known to buy an outfit for herself in Paris each season.
Interesting footnotes can be found throughout the show, which was curated by Molly Sorkin and Colleen Hill. Nettie Rosenstein, for example, preferred average size models, which gave her a better sense for what suited everyday women. And Bonnie Cashin reportedly described her ideal client — “a woman with something to do.” Rose Marie Bravo, Lauren Bacall, Vivienne Westwood, Rei Kawakubo and most of the other style-setters featured would certainly qualify, but of course they are there by their own right.