NEW YORK — “I originally wanted it at the Costume Institute, but they told me I had to be dead,” joked Arnold Scaasi, during a walk-through of his 47-year retrospective opening today at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology on Seventh Avenue.
Called “Scaasi: Exuberant Fashion — A Celebration of an American Couturier,” the exhibit runs through Jan. 4. It features some 170 dresses worn by prominent women of the past 40 years, including Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara and Laura Bush, Mamie Eisenhower, Joan Rivers and Barbra Streisand.
The first room of the exhibit begins with pieces Scaasi made for a General Motors print advertisement in 1954, the same year he changed his name — Scaasi is Isaacs spelled backward.
The exhibit then moves on to the late Fifties and Sixties, where dresses with wild prints and colors are paired with coats made of matching fabrics. This helped to revolutionize retail floors, Scaasi noted, since coats and dresses weren’t previously merchandised together.
The main room of the retrospective is a sea of dresses, each displaying an innovative cut, vibrant use of color and eye-catching fabric. The body of work features recent gowns, as well, including one worn by First Lady Laura Bush in 2001.
Accompanying many of the dresses are enlarged photos of socialites, members of royalty, first ladies and movie stars wearing Scaasi gowns. Also on display are select pieces of Scaasi-designed jewelry and enlarged pictures of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Time and other magazines featuring Scaasi dresses on the cover.
According to Ellen Shanley, curator of costume at The Museum at FIT, Scaasi makes larger-than-life clothes perfectly suited for making an entrance in the grandest of any social occasion.
“You have to have a specific kind of woman to carry it off because they’re not quiet,” Shanley said. “Often when he chooses his fabrics, the scale of the print is oversized. They’re large paisleys, large florals and large polka dots. You could say it would be overwhelming, but he makes it work. As a designer, you have to know how to work with the fabrics because it could be disastrous in the wrong hands.”
Shanley also said she most admired the designer’s sense of color: “I don’t think anyone can work with color and use it in such a bold way as Mr. Scaasi does. The color combinations are often shocking but they work.”
When asked about his consistent use of color during his career, Scaasi said: “Why make a simple black dress when you can have a simple red dress with a pink bow?”
One highlight of the exhibit is a variegated green ostrich-feather dress from 1959. While Scaasi made 13 green feather dresses, all were missing up until a few months ago. In a stroke of luck, Scaasi said Vogue European editor-at-large Hamish Bowles found the dress on eBay in May and lent it for the show.
One of the most noted women to wear one of the ostrich-feather dresses was Dorothy Kilgallen. The famous journalist and TV celebrity wore it to Princess Margaret’s wedding to Antony Armstrong-Jones at Westminster Abbey on May 6, 1960.
“Every dress brings back a memory,” said the designer. “I literally went through 40 years of analysis.”
To inaugurate the retrospective in true Scaasi fashion, a cocktail benefit was held at the museum Monday night to support FIT and The Breast Cancer Research Foundation.