CHICAGO — From a James Galanos “New Look” black chiffon cocktail dress to a Christian Lacroix lace jumpsuit, Michigan Avenue will be the focus of an upcoming exhibit at the Chicago History Museum entitled “Chicago Styled: Fashioning the Magnificent Mile,” opening Nov. 15.
Through a selected collection of 26 designer looks dating from the late Fifties to early Nineties, the exhibit will study the rise of the Avenue, known as the Magnificent Mile or “Mag Mile,” as a world-class shopping destination via key fashion designers and retailers that impacted its history.
“This was such a period when there was a lot of glamour, prestige and activity. A lot of designers were traveling to Chicago and seeking it out as a destination,” says Petra Slinkard, curator of costumes at the Chicago History Museum, which is celebrating the 40th anniversary of The Costume Council. “I was looking for pieces that represented what I felt like were quintessential silhouettes and styles that pinpointed different decades.”
From retailers like Bonwit Teller and Ultimo to designers like Chanel and Yohji Yamamoto, the exhibit travels through the city’s fashion history with designs that graced the famed avenue and its environs.
Exhibit pieces include a Karl Lagerfeld for Chloé one-shoulder minidress, purchased at Ultimo; a Courrèges sequined jumpsuit from the brand’s former boutique in Water Tower Place; a floor-length red sequined evening gown by Geoffrey Beene from I. Magnin; and a Thierry Mugler gold lamé cocktail dress purchased at Stanley Korshak.
The earliest ensemble is the aforementioned James Galanos cocktail dress, circa 1955, and the latest is the Christian Lacroix lace jumpsuit with a silk chiffon skirt and embroidered bodice, from 1993/1994. Galanos has three designs in the show and Norman Norell has two dresses featured.
The exhibit traces the Mag Mile’s history as far south as Pucci Chicago, the former bespoke tailor at 333 North Michigan Avenue, with a Seventies windowpane men’s suit belonging to a Chicago investment broker, and as far north as Millie B. Oppenheimer, with a Philip Hulitar dress bought in 1961 at the boutique once located at the former Ambassador West Hotel at 1300 North State Parkway.
“Every piece we chose had a strong Chicago story,” says Slinkard, who began assembling the exhibit last September. “Each dress has its capsule story. For instance, when Versace opened on Oak Street in 1986, he himself came to Chicago to open the boutique and during his visit he did a fashion show at the Field Museum. He donated nine pieces to the Chicago History Costume Collection, pieces from his Klimt collection.”
One of those pieces from the designer’s 1985 Klimt collection is featured in the exhibit. It is a metal mesh floor-length gown, patterned with large rectangles in gold, silver and white diamanté. “It’s what it would be like to wear liquid,” Slinkard says.
In choosing the looks, Slinkard says her focus was to illustrate how fashion has evolved in the last half of the 20th century.
“We’re starting with the Fifties classic hourglass silhouette and we’re going through to the Seventies and Eighties,” she says. “I was looking for pieces that were emblematic of each decide.”
The exhibit space is intimate; the 26 pieces are displayed in a gallery that normally houses 15.
“The previous exhibitions here were Christian Dior, Charles James and then Bertha Palmer. These are historical pieces. The volume of space — the piece, the dress and the mannequin — is a bit more voluminous,” she says. “I was lucky that we were focusing on more contemporary pieces as some of these pieces are skintight. The amount of space required is less than dealing with more historical shows.”