On November 23, 2001, the Friends of the Costume institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art were invited to Balenciaga Spanish Master
with Oscar de la Renta
and Hamish Bowels
at the Queen Sophia Spanish Institute on Park Avenue.
We gathered over prosecca and canapés under a portrait of the beautiful blond queen in the oak paneled reception room on the second floor of the Institute. First, Inmaculada de Habsburgo
explained how Margaret Strong
, the Marquise de Cuevas
, and a right thinking neighbor had saved the building from demolition in the 1950’s. Next, Harold Koda
, Chief Curator of the Costume Institute, told how Philippe de Montebello
had lured him back to the Met by threatening to hire someone to de-accession the costume collection. Oscar de la Renta, who began his career “picking up pins and sketching” at the Balenciaga ateliers in Madrid, revealed that he had “told a little white lie” about his knowledge of draping to get his first job in Paris as top assistant at the House of Lanvin
. Sarah Wolf
showed off the huge, round 60’s signature fabric covered buttons all down the back of the V-shaped, knee length, nubby blue wool vintage Balenciaga she was wearing and Patsy Tarr
displayed a dazzling suite of tangerine-colored sapphires she likes to put on around Halloween time “because the color works then”.
Organized by Hamish, the carefully chosen exhibit, “just the right size for a New York attention span,” according to Harold, includes famous pieces from the Museum at F.I.T. the Balenciaga Archives and the Met. Included is an incomparable Matador-like caplet of garnet-colored velvet, richly festooned with jet embroideries. Apparently Hamish first spotted and coveted this item when he was ten and ‘still in knee socks’, but hadn’t saved ‘quite enough’ allowance money to buy it ‘just then’.
Obsessive in a good way is a good description of Hamish, who has been one of my favorite fashion authorities ever since he showed me and Bettina Zilkha
how Jackie Kennedy
wore either over the elbow gloves or three quarter sleeves to make her very long arms look shorter and chose just the right shade of flame red beret to get herself on the cover of Life Magazine
when she and Jack
visited Canada at the beginning of his presidency. “It was the dawning of her legend as First Lady.” Hamish explained. There is also something really appealing about his oversized, earnest-looking glasses. And I find the unlikely combination of his encyclopedic knowledge and schoolboy quirks - he still says “umm’ a lot, brushes his longish hair off his forehead when he’s talking and his ears turn scarlet when he gets really passionate about a difficult point – disarming, to say the least. That his talk on the 23rd began with an admission that he is obsessed by Balenciaga was a case in point.
Almost everyone who cares about the history of fashion knows that Cristobal Balenciaga
, whose father was a pleasure boat captain in a small Basque village, revolutionized the look of the 50’s by using the shapes of regional Spanish costumes - not just bull fighter’s boleros, but also loose fisherman’s blouses for example - for haute couture, in much the same way that Chaucer
, hundreds of years earlier, changed language forever by writing court poetry in their local vernacular. Hamish, however, took this thought train one brilliant step further by literally showing the references and quotations for the show’s costumes by juxtaposing photos of them with slides of famous works of art.
Thus, an ivory silk evening dress covered all over with a riot of polychrome floral embroidery was linked to Joaquin Bastida’s brilliantly colored oil of flamingo dancers in Seville wearing similarely embellished costumes; a ‘cabbage head’ shaped evening wrap of black silk gazar was paired with Goya
’s portrait of the Duchesse of Alba
and Pauline de Rothschild
’s charmeuse evening romper was nestled against the image of Luis Miguel
Dominguín dancing with a goring bull. (The pink of his cape matches exactly the pink of Pauline’s silk faille, tasseled bolero.) The most telling duo, however, was an evening coat of scarlet silk ottoman and Goya’s Cardinal Luis María de Borbón y Vallabriga
. Imagine Tinsley Mortimer or any modern socialite, for that matter, invested, if only for just one evening, with all the power, magic, majesty and charisma of the century old vestments of the Catholic Church.
“And that’s,” said Hamish in conclusion, the tip of his nose turning slightly rose-colored, as if in sympathy with the rims of his ears, “me”.
Michèle Gerber Klein