FIT Museum director Valerie Steele talks about creating digital experiences while public spaces remain closed.
“We could loan it out all the time, but it’s just too fragile.”
Valerie Steele is talking about the crimson beaded gown and matching cape designed by Adrian and worn by Joan Crawford in The Bride Wore Red, the 1937 MGM film directed by Dorothy Arzner. Crafted of silk wool and fully embellished with an estimated two million hand-sewn bugle beads, the gown is regularly in demand for costume exhibitions around the world, but Steele, director of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, is hesitant to loan it out in the future. “It’s so heavy, and for too many years was just left hanging on a hanger, so now it must be handled with tremendous care,” she says.
The gown had appeared in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s “Hollywood Costume” exhibition in London between 2012 and 2013, and was last seen in “Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashion of the 1930s,” a 2014 exhibition at The Museum at FIT, where it was featured alongside evening dresses by Madeleine Vionnet, Cristobal Balenciaga and Jean Patou, as well as men’s dinner jackets and suits by Italian and Savile Row tailors. Additional examples of how Hollywood influenced the decade’s fashion included an image of Anna May Wong and Marlene Dietrich in a still from 1932’s Shanghai Express, a behind-the-scenes look at Ginger Rogers discussing her gowns with Bernard Newman for 1935’s Top Hat, and several images of Fred Astaire, which illustrate that he was as stylish offscreen as he was in his films throughout the 1930s.
With Technicolor still in a rarely used process in the mid-1930s, The Bride Wore Red was filmed in black and white, which only makes Crawford’s titular beaded gown, rendered in luscious crimson, seem all the more luxurious. Today that piece, as seen in “Elegance in an Age of Crisis,” as well as fashion and costumes seen in other FIT exhibitions, can be viewed online, thanks to a concerted effort by Steele’s team to create virtual museum experiences — a necessary step, she says, when the pandemic crisis caused the closure of most New York City public spaces in mid-March. “Almost immediately, we were in conversation with different museum groups, trying to determine the best way to continue to engage with audiences,” she says. Indeed, museums around the globe have been enhancing their online offerings while their doors remain closed, from the V&A, home of costumes worn by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), which offers a searchable database of hundreds of costume sketches, including Orry-Kelly’s designs for Rosalind Russell in 1958’s Auntie Mame and for Marilyn Monroe in 1959’s Some Like It Hot.
For The Museum at FIT’s site, past exhibitions are showcased on their own unique pages, where visitors can access slideshows, videos, podcasts and other related materials to enjoy a well-rounded sense of each exhibition’s content and historic value, while a searchable database also has been expanded. “We’ve always featured special websites of our exhibitions, but the shutdown orders really ratcheted things up for us and caused us to pivot to new skills and inclusion of more videos, for example,” Steele says.
That’s likewise true of “Paris, Capital of Fashion,” another Museum at FIT exhibition that featured an iconic Adrian design: a dramatic gold-embroidered velvet gown worn by Gladys George, as Madame du Barry, in 1938’s Marie Antoinette. “Paris, Capital of Fashion,” which opened in September 2019 and ran through early January 2020, largely explored the history of French fashion, including the unabashed opulence of the Court of Versailles throughout the 18th century. The Adrian Marie Antoinette gown was positioned in a section designed to resemble the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, which Steele calls “the heart of the exhibition,” and was placed next to a gold-embroidered “Apollo of Versailles” cape by Elsa Schiaparelli, from her Winter 1938-1939 collection and borrowed from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute.
“It’s funny, one journalist who reviewed the exhibition criticized the inclusion of the Adrian gown, because it wasn’t actually crafted in Paris or by a Paris-based designer,” recalls Steele, who curated the exhibition. “But it was so important to me to have it there, especially next to that Schiaparelli cape, which I had been praying the Met would lend to us. Paris is the world capital of fashion, but Hollywood has reinforced that idea for the better part of a century, while Americans also played a big role in making Paris the capital of fashion. So Adrian’s gown was worthy of being included.”
FIT has been collecting film costumes since the late 1960s, Steele says, before a formal museum actually existed. “A gentleman named Robert Riley was the first director of our Design Laboratory, and he had started collecting things,” she explains. “Robert had many friends and was great at promoting things, and one day an MGM executive reached out to him and said, ‘Do you want some Adrian costumes?’ And Robert’s answer was, ‘Of course!’ That’s when we were given some really marvelous pieces. It was really a lucky break, in the years before MGM had its historic costume and prop sale [in 1970], and before anyone realized how historically valuable film costumes could be.” The museum’s Adrian collection also includes costumes the legendary designer created for Greta Garbo for Anna Karenina, Queen Christina and Camille, as well as suits and dresses from Adrian’s eponymous private label and a draped silk-jersey gown from his final film, 1952’s Lovely to Look At.
Not everyone recognized their value throughout the museum’s history, however. “A previous director wanted to get rid of them, but I find them so incredibly important – not only within a conversation about film costumes, but fashion as well,” Steele notes.
In addition to film costumes, the Museum at FIT also possesses an exceptional collection of Lauren Bacall’s personal wardrobe and costumes, again thanks to Riley’s early efforts. “He was an acquaintance, and she really loved fashion, so she was giving us things even before the museum was founded [in 1969],” Steele says. Bacall passed away in 2014, but an exhibition of her collection already had been in the works at The Museum at FIT, conceptualized and produced by the school’s graduate students.
“We contacted her and asked if we could do a show featuring the clothes she had donated,” Steele remembers. “She made only one request: ‘Just make sure it’s glamorous.’” “Lauren Bacall: The Look” was presented in March and April 2015 and highlighted not only pieces from her personal wardrobe, from designers that included Yves Saint Laurent, Emanuel Ungaro and Pierre Cardin, but also the matching pink dress and coat Bacall wore in 1964’s Sex and the Single Girl, designed by Norman Norell.
Steele notes that no specific date has been confirmed yet for when both the museum and classes once again will open at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Until then, fans of fashion and film alike can access images from the museum’s archives, not only for personal enjoyment, but also to gain a greater understanding of the relationship between fashion and cinema. “Film has been an enormous influence on fashion – we see it in the work of designers both past and present, but it’s also because the public simply has a fascination with Hollywood,” Steele says. “It’s understandable that it transcends the idea of costume design – that sense of escapism and glamour has always been too irresistible.”
All images courtesy of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.